19. Mississippi

It was with heavy hearts that we departed Louisiana;  wanting more swamps, music, and Cajun cooking. It felt like we barely scratched the surface of this colorful culture. But, we were also really looking forward to traveling The Blues Highway up through Mississippi and let us tell you: it did not disappoint.

To set the mood as you read further, blues, blues, and more blues from one of the Delta’s favorite sons.

 

“Son, I hope you are ready to bring it this afternoon; this is some good chicken you are about to eat.”

Maybe we thought the whole fried chicken in the south thing was just hype. However, after tasting Mr. D’s “Heavenly fried chicken” at the The Old Country Store, we realized the South’s reputation is well-deserved.

How to describe it? Well, it was as if we’d never really eaten fried chicken before that first crispy yet juicy, flavorful bite– and don’t even get us started on the side dishes of mac & cheese, collard greens, corn bread, and cobbler, washing it all down with that sweet, sweet tea. What we also found out later is that people drive from far away (Canada, even!) for a taste of Mr. D’s poultry goodness, right off of US 61, in Lorman, Mississippi, in the middle of nowhere.

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Jason knew he was in for a treat when Mr. D (pictured, smiling down on us) walked up to him before he entered the buffet line and said, “Son, I hope you are ready to bring it this afternoon; this is some good chicken you are about to eat.”

Natchez

Drawn to the oldest settlement on the Mississippi River, we opted to spend a few nights at  Natchez State Park . Usually, we stay at state and national parks to get in a few hikes. However, that once we read that we needed to don an orange vest while hiking to identify ourselves to hunters in the park, and the sign telling hunters to stay 100 yards from the trail (last time we checked, a bullet can travel more than 100 yards!) we decided to give this activity a miss.

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“Call me after deer season”. One of the many signs we found advertising hunting services in Natchez.

Each year thousands of people descend on this town to make the “pilgrimage” to view historic antebellum homes in the surrounding neighborhoods, where owners don traditional dress and give the home’s revisionist history.

As exciting as that sounded to us (yawn…), we opted instead for a different kind of culture in the form of a satirical play depicting this annual event at the Natchez Little Theater, Mississippi’s oldest community theater. Afterwards, while the Windusts gave the play “Southern Exposure” 3 stars, the overall experience brought this night up to a solid rating of 5 out of 5.

Southern Exposure Play at Natchez Little Theatre MS

And a bottomless glass of wine to go with our $10 ticket, that’s what we call southern hospitality

Vicksburg National Military Park

Vicksburg National Historic Park is worth a visit as it is the very site of the American Civil War Battle of Vicksburg, waged from May 18 to July 4, 1863. You can drive the 16 mile road to see the 1,340 monuments, markers and plaques, the U.S. Cairo, museums, and a national cemetery.

 

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Cleveland

On our way from Natchez to Clarksdale, we made sure to stop at Dockery Farms, a former cotton plantation established in 1895 and home to  Charley Patton, father of the delta blues.

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Clarksdale

While on the road to our next stop in Clarksdale, Wendy and Jason debated whether to stay at the super cool Shack Up Inn or the super cheap county fairgrounds. Those of you who know us even a little already know who was voting for what.

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Hey ,it isn’t that bad.

But marriage is all about compromises, so after setting up camp we stopped by the Shack Up Inn for a tour and drink at probably the coolest bar we’ve visited.

The next time we come through Mississippi, we will stay here to fully enjoy the live music on offer every night, just paces from where you sleep. Paradise.

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90 minutes south of Memphis and touted as the birthplace of the blues, we chose Clarksdale as a destination to check out juke joints and to experience this history, firsthand.  We hit up Levon’s Drugstore Diner for dinner and live music from Deak Harp. As we were just sitting down, an altercation broke out between the musician and a spectator, asking said musician if he could please turn down the music. Well, you can imagine how well that went over.

Next stop was a visit to the Delta Blues Museum. We got lucky and visited on Muddy Water’s birthday celebration. This meant we got to scarf down delicious cupcakes as we walked room to room, soaking in the history of the artifacts from the musical lives of the legendary musical artists, who were born and raised in and around this area, such as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Son House, Ike Turner, and Sam Cooke–to name just a few.

Must return–soon

We didn’t know what to really expect of Mississippi, but ended up spending 3 great days driving up the Delta. Some other observations.

  • We know this is the “Bible Belt” but were still surprised by how many packed churches we drove by on Sunday.
  • They take their music very, very seriously.
  • For what the south lacks in variety with their cuisine, they make up for (in a big way) in quality.
  • Southern hospitality is legit! We encountered too many examples of super friendly locals to list here.

All in all, though our time was short, we found Mississippi a pleasant surprise, especially in the shadow of lovely Louisiana.

Next up: Tennessee!

 

16. New Mexico

New Mexico’s nickname is the “Land of Enchantment” and you’ll get no arguments from the Windusts.

We started our travels as we shot through southern New Mexico to the city of Las Cruces. Our original plans were to drive straight to the nearby national parks, but life on the road and dental emergencies require one to be flexible, so we had an extra day or two to explore this city.

Before too long, it was on to Carlsbad Caverns, the 17th national park on our journey.

17th! Wow.

Upon arrival, we learned the elevator that typically brings people 750′ out of the cavern was broken. Indi was dismayed, but Wendy and Jason were thrilled (feeling like the exercise would justify a cold one later) and decided the extra hiking was well worth seeing such an amazing site.

The caverns here are immense, amazing, otherworldly… it’s really difficult to capture in words or even photos. We signed up for a ranger-led hike to go along with our own exploring.

Anytime you can take part in a ranger-led anything in a national park, do it.

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After 5 hours and 4 miles of trekking up and down and across and through the caves, we were happy and exhausted– but not too exhausted to take Indi to her first drive-in movie.

“It’s just like Grease!” Indi exclaimed as we pulled into our spot. Seriously, who doesn’t love going to a drive-in movie? After loading up on popcorn and sweets, Indi self-nominated herself as chaperone, sitting between her parents so we couldn’t make out.

This Tina Fey movie wasn’t our favorite, but who doesn’t love a drive in? We just read that drive-in movies are making a resurgence. Portland needs to jump on the retro bandwagon and reopen some theaters near us. Stat. By this summer, thank you.

Our last stop in New Mexico was  White Sands National Monument. We stayed in-between the Missile Range and the national monument and were well rewarded with a gorgeous colors after a long, winding drive up, up, up to the BLM campground Aguirre Springs.

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Sunrise at probably the best U.S. camp spot we’ve had on our trip.

We were trying to figure out why our campground only charged $7 per night…

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Mystery solved

The nearby White Sands National Monument did not disappoint. We spent a fun afternoon exploring the cool to the touch sand dunes and getting in a little sledding sans snow.

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And what trip to New Mexico wouldn’t be complete without a visit to a Missile Museum –and of course Roswell to checkout the Alien controversy first hand.

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The truth is out there

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Don’t panic… it’s just a re-enactment

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Aliens in Oregon, we’re not surprised. Now, if they’ll just open up a drive-in.

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Missile museum 10 minutes from our camp

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Aptly named

 

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Still not sure what in the hell this thing is.

 

Next up: the Lone Star State!

 

14. Driving the Baja Peninsula, Part II

Not that there’s anything wrong with it.

The very picture of a Mexican paradise, it’s true that Cabo San Lucas has it all: gentle waves, sloping white sand beaches, “Coco Locos”, and warm water.

It’s just that after a few weeks of almost solitary beauty, we knew that Cabo San Lucas would be a bit more, um, busy than we were used to. And, yes, we expected sun burnt tourists, beach hawkers, and banana boats. However, the juxtaposition of the natural beauty of Lands End in Cabo San Lucas, where the Pacific Ocean meets the Sea of Cortez, and the raucous pre-Spring Break scene unfolding in front of us made our foray into the Cabo beach scene short and sweet.

It also made us so very grateful for our next destination as we headed north to the artsy town of Todos Santos where we stayed close to the beauty of the desert and the ocean while also feeling far, far away from the all-inclusive vacationers.

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When you think of Todos Santos, Hotel California, hippies, and surf breaks come to mind. Our journey led us to this pinpoint on the Baja California Sur map because of friends and turtles.

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We should have also expected grandparents, surfing and boogie boarding, and continuing the search for the best taco stand on the peninsula.

Highlights of the trip:

**Volunteering for 10 days at Tortugueros Las Playitas

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We learned about Olive Ridley, Leatherback, and Black sea turtles, answered questions about why the nests were in the greenhouse (to maintain a constant temperature to ensure hatching) and other queries, drove the ATV up and down the coast, searching the beach for nesting turtles at night, watched the nests during the day for emerging turtles, and helped with the tiny turtles’ nightly release into the mighty Pacific.

All of this while also hanging out with our friends and family.

**Searching for the perfect wave

Our favorite beach for surfing, swimming, and boogie boarding was Los Cerritos

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Each day after volunteering at Tortugueros Las Playitas, we packed up with cooler and the car and set out for the beach.

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Kiran, Kavi, and Indi are ready to go!

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One of the few pictures out of the water

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Grandpa and Grandma Snell

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Grandma didn’t stay dry for long (in pink)

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Relaxing after a tough day at the beach

**Daily brunch at our favorite restaurant, La Esquina

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La Esquina is one of those gems you just happen to discover and don’t want to give up. Other than amazing breakfasts/lunches, every Wednesday, they host a market for local artisans to sell everything from jewelry to organic fruits and veggies.

La Paz, upwards and onwards!

After spending 10 glorious days with our friends in Todos Santos, and with too many belly laughs to count, we said au revoir and drove northeast to La Paz.

We booked the top floor at Las Gaviotas Bed & Breakfast and enjoyed homemade breakfast in the morning, had the pool to ourselves, caught up on laundry, and couldn’t beat the proximity to the beach and malecon, just a block away.

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View from the Las Gaviotas balcony

Highlights:

**Swimming with the mighty whale sharks.

This was crazy fun. After spotting the tiny dorsal fin of these ginormous sharks, we jumped off a boat in our snorkeling gear and swam to meet up with for a swim alongside these amazing creatures. The first time was scary. We met the sharks head on and then started hyperventilating. By the time we got it together, the whales were gone. The next jumps were better and we were able to swim in-between two of the three sharks as they were leisurely basking for plankton. We would fly to La Paz in a heartbeat, just to have this experience again.

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Photo Eco Tours Cabo

**Beach hopping

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We browsed all of the beaches before settling on Puerto Balandra for one day and Playa Pichilinque for another. We snorkeled, paddleboarded and kayaked to sea lion colonies and to secret beaches, and floated like jellyfish in the clear waters of the Sea of Cortez.

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Post Paddle @ Puerto Balandra

**Eating our way up and down the malecon

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Street food at its best: Chocolate Clams

Your mother may have warned you to never try seafood from a street vendor. That’s why we had to take mom to try the chocolate clams. Although wary at the time, when the next day came around and she was intestinally healthy, she wanted more!

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Tasting the IPA from Baja Brewery and a few pizzas from Harkerboard

After a month and a half of tacos, we had a hankering for pizza. Harkerboard, a SUP rental place by day and rooftop restaurant by night, hit the spot. A big bonus was trying the local microbrewery’s IPA.

We also taste-tested the local ice cream with two winners (after too many cups and cones to count) La Fuente (homemade, strange and delicious flavors) and Paletería Y neveria La Tropical (fresh fruit popsicles)

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Yum.

**Walking the city to discover statues and sculptures, amazing graffiti artwork, “interesting” store displays, and the natural side of La Paz on the waterfront malecon

 

After four glorious days, the grandparents flew back to Oregon and we started our trek up to the United States. All in all, our time in Baja was magical and inspirational and we would wholeheartedly recommend driving the peninsula or flying into a major city and renting a car to get a better idea of how much this peninsula has to offer.

We all agree that Baja has now joined our top five favorite places in the world–no easy feat!

Next up: Spring Training in Arizona, white sands, missiles and a root canal in New Mexico, and caving in Texas.

12. Bryce Canyon, Zion, The Grand Canyon (North Rim), Oregon, and California

We ended the first part of our road trip with a bang! As the weather started to get colder, we elected to rent a house in Kanab, Utah which allowed us to explore nearby Bryce Canyon, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and Zion national park. The blue skies and ideal weather that had been with us most of this trip continued, but there was a noticeable drop in the temperature and remnants of the season’s first snow were still on the ground. The parks were amazing and we had a great time!

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Beautiful Bryce Canyon!

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Checking out the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. And we thought the view from the South Rim was good.

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The best thing about the North Rim in November? The fact that we had it all to ourselves!!!

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We took a short break in our busy exploring schedule to volunteer at the “Best Friends” animal sanctuary in Kanab. Awesome organization and a great day playing with and taking care of some dogs.

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EPIC hike up Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park. Indi was a little excited to almost be at the top. The last quarter of a mile was the scariest stretch of trail I’ve ever hiked, but worth every bit of the discomfort.

 

However, the highlight of the last part of our trip was catching up with Jason’s best buddy Wade Field and his family in St. George, Utah. Lots of laughs and good times were had. And as Jason and Wade easily predicted, Wendy and Erica quickly realized that they were kindred spirits.

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Love this crew!

 

Another lifelong friend, Jeremy Phillips even flew down from Oregon for a weekend of golfing, gambling, and to accompany Wade and Jason on the long drive back up to Oregon. The boys almost made the trip back without incident. A stopover in Boise helped us to all realize that hanging out it in college bars made us feel very old, sharing a white knuckle drive down Cabbage Hill (just outside of La Grande in Eastern Oregon) through a white out blizzard, and blowing out a tire on the trailer just 15 miles from home were all part of the adventure. I was very grateful to have the boys along with me.

All told our trip spanned two and half months, 8800 miles, 14 national parks, and 10 states… and we wouldn’t have changed a thing.

Road trip part 1

If anyone fancies taking this trip themselves just let us know and we can e-mail a detailed itinerary.

 

It was good to be back home in Oregon for the holidays. The two months home reminded us how great our family and friends are, as well as how depressing ice storms and a month of solid rain can be. The other big decision we made was to retire our tent trailer “Trailblazer” and upgrade to a hard sided trailer for the second half of our journey, which will forever be known (at least until we sell it this summer) as “Cicak” , Indonesian for gecko (can you see why?).

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Our new tiny home

 

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Can’t let a little rain keep us off the trails (Angel’s Rest, one of our favorite hikes near our home in Oregon)

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Or ice for that matter

After the New Year, it was time to hit the road again, our ultimate destination being Todos Santos at the southern end of Baja, Mexico. Of course, first we had to make it through the great state of California. Due to a delay in getting our new trailer’s registration this part of our journey had to be a little rushed. Regardless, we were able to enjoy a short stay in the Redwoods.

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Breaking in our new trailer Cicak at Jedediah State Park in the California Redwoods.

 

And, best of all, we were able to see a lot of friends and family along the way. A big thank you to Indi’s great-grandmother, Bunny Cooper, Jason’s cousin, Sara Windust, and friends Adam Carter, Mark Picketts, and Krista Oliver for opening up your homes and spending some time with us. It was great to see you all.

Excited to be entering the next phase of our trip… Baja, here we come.

Top 10: Very Best Gear (so far)

After 70 days on the road, here’s the very best gear we packed or picked up along the way


  1. MR. HEATER

Oh how we love you, Mr. Heater. You’ve brought warmth and comfort to us on the chilliest Autumn days in our very poorly insulated and increasingly holey Trailblazer. Although gassy at times, the stink is worth the heat.


2. Reading material

Our book bin is huge and heavy and we couldn’t help stopping by used book stores, garage and estate sales, and thrift stores to add a few titles to read. We also discovered Overdrive, through our local library, and have loved getting electronic check-outs for free! If you are still paying for the latest and greatest e- and audiobooks, you really need to check out (get it?) the offerings of your hometown library. You can even put books on hold and you will receive notifications when the books are available. Here’s a list of most of the books we’ve read or listened in the past three months on the road:

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyUndaunted Courage: The Pioneering First Mission to Explore America's Wild FrontierRed QueenSimple GeniusThe Sword of ShannaraChicken Soup for the Teen Soul: Real-Life Stories by Real TeensMy Own Two FeetA Girl from YamhillSahara SpecialGuns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human SocietiesIllusionariumAll the Light We Cannot See
The CircleEncore to an Empty RoomBlink: The Power of Thinking Without ThinkingJohn Glenn: A MemoirMagoniaDon't Suck, Don't Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt
To Kill a MockingbirdThe Paris WifeCinderI'll Give You the SunThe Sky is EverywhereHatchet
The Life as We Knew It CollectionCarry OnThe NecromancerThe MagicianThe AlchemystThe Sorceress
Lost on Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man's Attempt to Understand the World's Most Mystifying Nation, or How He Became Comfortable Eating Live SquidOne Last Thing Before I GoSo B. It
We also have Next Issue for the magazines we can’t live without–such as Jason’s growing love affair with Sunset Magazine.

3. Comfy campfire chairs

We couldn’t–comfortably–live without out very lovely chairs that transform from breakfast nook in the morning to fire and stargazing most nights. Indi chose a bungee cord chair while Jason and Wendy opted for the high-backed version.


4. Folding table

Transformer. Not only is this bad boy a sturdy 48″ table that doubles as a kitchen counter, but it also folds in half AND has a handle for easy carrying and storage.


5. Hiking Boots

Boots

Boots from left: Jason’s Lafuma, Wendy’s Lowa, Indi’s Vasque

We hike, on average, five times a week and solid boots are a must. To tell the truth, all of our other shoes–other than flip flops–could, should have been left at home. Jason and Indi got their boots second hand at Next Adventure in Portland and Wendy got her boots–new–at REI. So far, and although Indi doesn’t love hiking quite as much as her parents do, there have been no complaints from the knee down.


6. Water Container

This was a sweet little find in the Casper, Wyoming Salvation Army. As the season wound down and campgrounds whittled away the amenities, we used this container more and more since water was less and less available.

Coleman Two Gallon Party Stacker


7. Comfy and warm bedding

Sleeping on the stock Jayco mattresses for a night or two is just fine as the knots and kinks are resolved with time. However, the thought of months and months of sore backs and sleepless nights sent Wendy searching for a thin (so that we could actually close up Trailblazer) but effective mattress pad. Eureka! The Simmons Beautyrest BigSleep 3 Convoluted Foam Topper with memory foam.


8. National Park pass

Here’s the math: Each national park entry is–on average–25 USD. The park pass was 80 USD for all the national parks in the States for one whole year. So far, we have been to 13 parks with many more to visit this year. Money well-spent.


9. Headlamps

Flashlight, reading light, coyote spotter. Enough said.


10. jet boil

For a few years now, the Jet Boil has been a backpacking staple. Currently, we are equally devoted to it as caffeinated campers. A bonus is that it’s small enough to use inside Trailblazer on chilly mornings (even though the directions warn us not to).


Honorable Mentions:

Ziploc Slider Bags in Quart and Gallon Sizes. So useful when your refrigerator is a cooler

Bath in a bag. Not only have these wipes helped us to feel okay about a lack of real showers + close living but, we will keep these little babies in mind for multi-day races, too.

The small, but mighty hatchet

The small, but mighty hatchet


Over the last three months, we have found that we have too much of just about everything and will narrow down our packing lists for the next leg of our journey, starting in January.  It does feel like the beginning of something transformative, something that will stick.

Stay tuned for the next post in “tiny living”: the top 10 things we didn’t actually end up needing, or will revise/upgrade to better suit our needs. . .

10. Death Valley National Park

You head off to a destination, maybe you’ve done some research–maybe not–and you have this preconceived notion of what it will be like. Then you arrive and realize you were totally wrong.

For us, this was Death Valley.

Other than the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Death Valley was probably the National Park we knew the least about prior to this trip. What were we expecting?

Searing heat. Sand. Desolation. Flatness.

What did we find? As we entered the park, we were greeted with pleasant 80o F (250C) temperatures, almost no sand, a surprising amount of vegetation, and a vast basin surrounded by mountains and canyons too numerous to explore.

Initially we had planned on staying in Mesquite Springs campground (another Sunset magazine recommendation), but after consulting our map we felt that either Sunset or Texas Springs would be more convenient for the limited time we had in our nation’s largest national park (1.8 million acres). Upon pulling into Sunset we were greeted to a huge gravel parking lot filled with mega-motorhomes. We inwardly, or quite possibly, outwardly groaned in dismay. However, as we continued up the hill and into the adjacent Texas Spring Campground and were happy to find at least a few trees and a bit more separation between sites.

Texas Springs Campground

So, we set up camp and headed to the nearby Furnace Creek Resort to check out the visitor center and plan our next few days. Furnace Creek was the site of an old mining community that has now become an upscale-ish resort; complete with cabins, restaurant, pub, grocery store, and the world’s lowest elevation golf course.

From here we headed towards Artists Drive Loop, only to arrive and discover, like several other park roads, that it was closed due to flash flood damage. However, on the way back to camp we found the Golden Canyon Trailhead and decided to check it out. We ended up discovering a cool little canyon that became even more dramatic on the way out due to an amazing sunset.

This is probably a good time to mention that we’ve never been to a place with more dramatic sunrises and sunsets and this is a case where pictures are definitely worth a few thousand words, I only wish our photography skills could match what we saw in nature.

The next day we had planned to start our day in Mosaic Canyon –another amazing hike– walking, and in places scrambling, up a narrow canyon.

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After our hike, we headed to Badwater Basin. At 282 feet (86 m) below sea level it is the lowest spot in the U.S. By the time we had arrived the wind had picked up, I mean really picked up!

 

We didn’t really expect much visiting Badwater Basin and the salt flats, but once again were blown away (almost literally) by the otherworldly landscape. A short drive away we also stopped at the Devil’s Golf Course where deposits of salt have been sculpted by water and wind to form a sharp and jagged ground that you would not want to trip and fall on.

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After getting back to camp, we discovered our bins and some other camping equipment that had blown across the campground into some bushes; actually it was the park’s camp host and our neighbors that discovered and returned them to us… camping rookie mistake. The wind was still howling, our Good Samaritan neighbor had a weather station on his motor home and informed us the wind was blowing 40 Knots. We’re not sailors so we don’t know what a knot actually is, but now we know that when you put 40 of them together, that’s a hell of a strong wind (actually Jason did just look this up and 40 Knots = 46 MPH = 74 KPH).

Wendy and Indi retreated into the tent trailer, which felt as if it was in jeopardy of being blown over, while Jason turned the truck around to create a wind barrier and moved our stove into the back of the pick-up under the canopy to whip up dinner. Later in the night the wind did die down and we woke up to rain showers… rain in Death Valley? Yet another preconceived notion blown out of the water.

As we packed up the next morning, it was with a little sadness because the rest of this leg of our journey– Las Vegas, Kanab, and St. George– will be spent in a hotel, an Airbnb rental, and with friends, so our camping nights in Trailblazers are finished (maybe for good if we upgrade our trailer over the Christmas holiday back in Oregon).

So long Trailblazer

So long, Trailblazer

Death Valley gets six huge thumbs up from the Windusts.

Next stop: Viva Las Vegas!

7. Mesa Verde National Park and Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

Before our schools put the–thankfully, temporary–kibosh on the yellow, iconic geographic magazine, two afterimages branded our juvenile minds: the feathered, painted, topless tribes in Africa—brought to teachers’ attention by the huddles of snickering boys—and the cliff-dwelling ancestral Native Americans of Arizona.

Balcony House

So, it was no accident that Mesa Verde (Spanish for “green table”) was one of the first destinations mapped in Roadtrippers as we commenced planning for the first leg of travels in the Western United States. We were not disappointed as this national park delivered a heady dose of southwestern culture.

Since we couldn’t find adequate information about camping in the park (later, we drove through Morefield Campground and it looked awesome), and we needed showers and laundry facilities, we paid $35.00 a night for a water and electric site at Mesa Verde RV Resort and, once again, were thankful for our earplugs as it is located adjacent to the highway. Other than the noise for just a few hours at night, this was a great starting point for the close proximity to Mesa Verde as well as the small towns of Cortez and Mancos. After we arrived and set up Trailblazer, we headed to Cortez to the popular Pippo’s Café for our first taste of Navajo Tacos, recommended by our friend Deanna (who is now working in Moscow and would probably do anything for a taco right now), one of the best meals we’ve had on our trip so far. Imagine an unsweetened elephant ear topped with ground beef, shredded lettuce and cheese, and healthy dollops of sour cream and salsa. For the rest of our time in the southwest, Wendy was vigilant for these tacos but only found them one more time.

Found this recipe on cookingclassy.com so it must be for sophisticated palates.

For our first full day, we set out the next day on a ranger-led hike to Balcony House, which is located on the Chapin Mesa. When we arranged this hike at the visitor’s center, the description of Adventurous Cliff Dwelling Tour” caught our attention and we signed up for this hike only to later learn that this is the only tour offered at this time of year. We found it interesting to find out about Richard Wetherill and Charles Mason (Wetherill’s brother-in-law) who first discovered the ruins in 1888. Although most of the artifacts found by Wetherill and Mason found their way to museums, because of public looting in later years, in 1906, President Teddy Roosevelt established Mesa Verde National Park, the very first national park of its kind. On the guided hike, our ranger guide Jess also communicated not only the history of the Ancestral Pueblo people (formerly known as the Anasazi, which is not politically correct in current times) who lived in this area for 700 years, from A.D. 600 to A.D. 1300, but also gave anecdotes about the missteps of the well-meaning archaeologists who used—ultimately damaging—techniques to fortify the archaeological sites of over 4,000 archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. Despite the archaeologists, today Mesa Verde retains some of the best-preserved sites of stone, mortar, and plaster in the United States.

We learned about the ancient farming practices, looked into kivas—which are subterranean, circular ancient apartments—viewed the pottery, murals, and found, once again, the importance of first hand experiences to bring history to life. We’d highly recommend this tour although it is most definitely not for the claustrophobic or acrophobic as we climbed 60-foot ladders and inched through a tiny exit tunnel before climbing another shaky ladder to the cliff’s exit.

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For the remainder of the day, we visited museums, went on a few hikes to other cliff dwellings and soaked in the culture of these amazing people. In contrast, in the early evening, we experienced current, popular culture and Indi had a sewing lesson for a few hours while Wendy and Jason added another brewery to the list. Later that night, we experienced more American culture through the new Goosebumps movie in Cortez.

Our southwestern girl

Our southwestern girl

The next day we packed up and hit the road, back to Utah traveling through four different states (Utah, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico) as we headed to the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. We stayed at Goulding’s Lodge Campground and RV Park, just around the corner from the historic lodge frequented by John Wayne in his heyday. Since we were staying just one night, we set up Trailblazer and headed to the park’s visitor center and decided against a formal tour, instead driving ourselves the scenic, 17 miles of the public areas of the park. The famous sandstone monolith monuments are truly spectacular, including The Mittens, John Ford’s Point, Three Sisters, North Window, Totem Pole, Yei Bi Cheis and Artist’s Point; so well-worth the drive here.

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That evening, we headed to Goulding’s Trading Post Museum, learning about the relationship between the Goulding family and the Navajo people. We watched a movie about the history of this area and funny enough, there was more information about the Western movies shot in this area of the southwest and the many movie stars who vacationed in this area than the history of the Navajo people. Before heading back for a campsite dinner with our new wild dog friends, we said goodnight to John Wayne’s cabin.

The next morning, on our way out, we fortified our bodies with Navajo Huevos Rancheros. Wendy was thrilled to have her second dose of delicious fry bread and this was a great way to part ways for now.

Next stop: the Grand Canyon!