For the first time in 20+ years, I took some time for a two-week vacation in August. Yes, in 2011 I took the kids to Europe when they graduated high school. And we’ve visited Florida, Texas, California, Hawaii and Alaska over the years. But for the first time since well before my twenty-two year old was born, I decided to extend a trip to Phoenix and see the far west for myself, from Arizona to Idaho and back again.
I planned my itinerary ahead of time on my Droid: dates, addresses, phone numbers and confirmation numbers. Between hotel loyalty programs and points racked up on a “what’s in your wallet” credit card, I had no costs for the rental car and few costs for lodging. Food and gas would be my only out of pocket expenses. I opted to pay $6.00 a day for the peace of mind of roadside assistance, and I hopped in my rental and headed out on the road. First stop? South rim of the Grand Canyon, four hours from Phoenix.
A friend and colleague in Phoenix advised me, “Go through Sedona! It’s right on the way and you’ll be glad you did!” Coming out of the Sonoran desert, climbing with the highway to higher elevations, I took Interstate 17 to route 179 and winded my way up to Sedona. First I came upon the city, but it was what rose in the distance just beyond that took my breath away; huge, imposing red rock cathedrals that towered over the landscape. I drove on, making many stops to take shot after shot of these incredible formations. I was really glad I took the long way; it added two hours to the drive, but there was nowhere else I needed to be. What a luxury.
I got to Grand Canyon National Park late that afternoon. There was a small tourist area right before the ranger station, but nothing too busy. Likewise, the lines to get into the park were light. I was through and on my way in no time. I had to find my way to the Thunderbird Lodge, and all I can say is, thank goodness for GPS! Winding through many small roads and lanes, I eventually came across a complex of nondescript buildings that left me lost and confused. The GPS said I had arrived. Don’t you hate when that happens? Turns out, the lodge was one of those buildings. And once I figured out where to check in, I realized to my amazement that these buildings were right on the rim of the Grand Canyon. There was only a sidewalk between my lodge room window and the edge of the canyon, forty feet away! What surprised me even more was that the rim of the canyon, a precipice with a drop straight down, has little protection to keep people safely back away from its edge. You can step right off if you’re not careful. Mind you, the scenery is INCREDIBLE! Everything I had hoped it would be. And with the late afternoon sun illuminating the canyon floor and far off canyon walls, I stood there just taking it all in. And after dinner right there on the rim, and enjoying a sunset to remember, I slept well.
The next morning I was up early driving east along the south rim on route 64. The rising sun washed out the colors and contours of the canyon, but it was still spectacular. After climbing the tower at the far east end of the park, I began the day’s drive through Utah up to Yellowstone. I made good progress heading north on route 89 until it came to a dead stop and I had to detour on to 89a. Without realizing it, I was diverted around the north rim of the Grand Canyon, and the sights were spectacular! It was different from Sedona and the south rim, but breathtaking in its own right, including a bridge over the Colorado River as it headed south into the canyon. Lesson learned: a detour can take you places you really ought to go.
Lunch that day was in Kanab once I crossed the state line into Utah, followed by stops at Zion and Bryce National Parks just because they were there. When would I ever get back here to see them again? Both were spectacular and deserve a day dedicated to each, but I had to keep moving. Farther north on 89 I hopped on route 153 to connect with interstate 15 in Beaver, Utah. From there it was a straight shot 80 M.P.H. to Salt Lake City. I loved that highway! I hit Salt Lake at rush hour, though, and I’m here to tell you it was every bit as gridlocked as I’ve seen Manhattan, Boston and D.C. Everyone was crawling across a wide stretch of lanes, and my need for a meal and a bathroom break made it seem even slower. I grabbed glimpses of the great Salt Lake from the highway on the left, and the city’s downtown on the right. I took it all in until I finally exited at a little town called Bountiful for a much needed break.
Back on the road early evening, I finished my trek to Idaho Falls, Idaho, where I had a hotel reservation. Route 15 was a godsend; I made great time and the traffic kept moving once I was out of the Salt Lake area. I slept like a baby, but the next morning I didn’t feel right. I tried to eat something for breakfast but wound up throwing it away, figuring I just wasn’t hungry. Heading east out of Idaho Falls, I took route 26 to Jackson Hole, Wyoming and the Grand Tetons. I figured out the route using Google maps; it was amazing to me that it was just ninety minutes to get there, and then just another sixty minutes on to Yellowstone…and it was only one entrance fee to see both natural national treasures! The drive along 26 was scenic, following along the Snake River as it flowed out of the mountains ahead. Jackson Hole itself was very built up and overrun with tourist traffic, but it’s a must-see. The entire town is designed to blend in with its mountain heritage. I was acting pretty touristy myself, taking pictures everywhere I looked: log cabin constructions, elk-antler park entrance ways, wildlife sculptures…amazing.
As I came out of Jackson Hole, I took a left on Teton Park Road (part of route 89), which headed straight north right along the peaks of the Grand Teton mountain range. I kept pulling over every couple of miles to take more pics of the spectacular view. I had picked up a cowboy hat, and I threw it on and had my picture taken with the Tetons in the background. Hey, when else was I ever going to wear it? From there, it was a good hour drive to the Yellowstone entrance, and with the thrill of seeing the Tetons behind me, I again became aware of how lousy I was feeling. It was my sinuses, but it was affecting my stomach. And man was I getting hungry. Once in Yellowstone I stopped at one of the park lodges for lunch, and continued the drive up, up, up into the beautiful scenery of the park. The natural beauty made me forget about whatever was ailing me.
After spending days in the desert and the mountains, Yellowstone was a refreshing change of scenery. Lots of woodlands and rivers and canyons and waterfalls. More stops here and there for pictures. It occurred to me how expensive the photography would have been back in the day with the costs of the film and processing. Thank goodness for the digital age! Over two days I made the complete circle around the park, and then headed west on 287 towards Old Faithful, where I hung out until it was ready to blow. I figured out why they don’t call it Old Reliable; it didn’t perform on schedule. But I’d heard about this geyser since I was in grade school, and I wasn’t leaving until I saw it! It was a warm and breezy afternoon, and when it finally began to spout skyward, the winds blew it sideways. It was beautiful. I filmed the entire 4+ minutes and enjoyed every second. It was the highlight of my time at Yellowstone.
The next morning I hit Interstate 15 north to Montana: Butte, Helena and Great Falls. I had been there several years back, and I wanted to see it again. The weather turned from sun to rain, and I wasn’t feeling any better. But the drive and the scenery kept me going. Butte is an incredible old copper-mining town where many Irish migrated in the 1800s looking for work. From the highway, and then as you drive into town, you can see the scars where mining cut deep into the earth. Helena, the state capital, has continued to grow since my last visit. It has great sights and a downtown full of shops and eateries. But Great Falls felt anti-climactic, driving around in the rain. This is where I felt my worst. Still, it is amazing to be there. If you enjoy the Rockies in Colorado, you’ll love them in Montana! I want to get back to Montana and see Glacier National Park.
At the end of the week, I drove from Montana further west to Boise Idaho. I had been there on business years back, and it impressed me even more than Montana. I could have cut through the mountains, but my GPS told me it was safer and faster to head back down interstate 15 into Idaho and then cut across routes 22, 33, 26 and 84. Talk about another detour that was full of surprises! Out of nowhere I came up on the Craters of the Moon National Preserve. Accurately described by the National Park Service as “a vast ocean of lava flows with scattered islands of cinder cones and sagebrush,” it truly makes you feel like you’re on another planet. I’ve never seen anywhere else like it.
I booked three nights in Boise to use it as a home base and explore southern Idaho. The mountains, lakes and rivers are so in your face there…leaning right in over and around the roads. If the sky weren’t so wide open, the landscape could make you claustrophobic! There aren’t a lot of shoulders or man-made scenic overlooks to make it easy to pull over, so there is no safe way to stop and capture everything you see with a camera. You really need to experience Idaho first-hand. Taking route 55 up to Lake Cascade is a great drive; on a clear day the views along the shore and across the expanse of the lake are amazing. The biggest surprise for me was on my final day there, driving west on interstate 84 to Baker City, Oregon; a charming little town! Lots of old west culture and architecture both downtown and throughout its neighborhoods. It was a wonderful find.
The next morning I drove down to Twin Falls, Idaho and took in Snake River Canyon. The Snake seemed to be following me since Yellowstone, and I was coming to understand its importance to the region. From there, I headed south on state route 93 into Nevada’s Great Basin Desert, which is flat, remote and largely uninhabited. The best stops for gas, food and rest are in Wells (where 93 meets interstate 80) and Ely (where state routes 93 and 50 converge). Making sure I had a well-running, gassed up vehicle was foremost on my mind, so I was understandably concerned when the Service Engine Soon light came on! This is not a region where you want to breakdown in the middle of nowhere. I called the rental car company and their roadside assistance rep assured me it was just a maintenance reminder and I should be fine getting back to Phoenix. The drive south through Nevada was a different kind of beautiful, and along the way I started feeling so much better. My sinuses calmed down as did my stomach. Had traveling through the high country made me feel that lousy? Was it the drastic changes in altitude and atmosphere that threw my system off? Maybe so. At any rate, I wouldn’t have changed a thing…and I was glad to finally be feeling like my old self again.
From the Great Basin to the Mojave desert in southern Nevada, I rolled into Vegas for a night’s stay and the chance to catch up with an old boyhood friend who just happened to be there playing the casinos. Me? I’m not a Vegas person. I don’t gamble and I get bored with all the glitz and gaudiness. But it was a good stopping point after ten hours on the road. The next morning, I headed out southeast on route 93, making a stop at the Hoover Dam on the Nevada/Arizona border. Driving along the dam is impressive, and the views of the cliffs, the Colorado River and Lake Meade surrounding it are truly spectacular. The drought is so bad there, you can actually see the white watermark along the cliff walls indicating how low the lake has receded over the past two years.
Route 93 heads out of the scruffy Mojave and back into the Sonoran Desert on the way to Phoenix. Once again I was following the Colorado River, and the views along the roadway are awe-inspiring. This entire trip is a feast for the senses! As I came up on Kingman, Arizona, a dark, ominous-looking electrical storm filled the skies just to the west of the road, while east of the highway remained light and calm. The car was riding right along the edge of the storm, and it looked like the road was leading right into it. So it was a relief when the highway to Phoenix curved sharply to the east away from the storm. Thankfully, the heavy downpours were in the rearview.
Coming full circle, Phoenix provided a final night’s respite: three-thousand seven-hundred and eighty-five miles put on that Camry. What a wonderful trip it had been, seeing so many sights in so many places: Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Nevada. My mind was rested and refreshed; my spirit revived and renewed. But my body was tired of driving and living out of a suitcase. I was ready to head back to D.C.
It’s one of those eternal truths, you know? Getting away and making time for yourself without any of the demands of home and work is essential…for happiness…for health. You have to make time to reconnect with yourself. I’d been living with a reconnect disconnect. I hadn’t made time for this since before my kids were born. And the reality is, the more time that went by, the more I lost perspective of how much I needed it. I was swimming in responsibilities, taking care of business. Thankfully, it’s not too late. It’s never too late.
The next morning I got to Sky Harbor Airport in plenty of time for my flight, only to watch storm clouds roll in and delay takeoff for three hours. This was the first rain of the southwest’s monsoon season; the torrential downpours that have flooded the region over the last month. Leaving late from Phoenix meant I missed my connection in Chicago, but the airline did a great job of getting me on another flight that night. I was back in D.C. by 1:30 a.m. and home by 3:00 a.m. The delays and rebookings left me exhausted. I slept well into the middle of the next day.
Since then, life has resumed. The kids are back to college and work has never been busier. But the benefits of reconnecting continue, and I wanted to share my experience with you. If you are interested in seeing the sights I’ve shared from this trip, shoot me a message. I’m glad to offer recommendations on what to see, what routes to take, time and distances between stops, and where to stay and eat. I am happy to help you plan a reconnection of your own.
Whether you decide to head out west or anywhere else in this world, I heartily encourage you to do so, and soon. Make the commitment; make the plan. Don’t let 20+ years slip by. Me? I’m already thinking about next year’s trip. Maybe Paris? I want to spend more time there. Then again, I’ve never seen Ireland and Scotland, I want to take a cruise down the Rhine, and it’s been a lifelong dream of mine to see the Scandinavian capitals and St. Petersburg. With the instability in Eastern Europe, I’m not sure how safe travel will be next summer. Time will tell. All I can say right now is, I’m planning to reconnect with myself more often, and with a lot less time lapsed in between.