The Grandest of Canyons

I stand with Steve in the kitchen, an old Indian Country map spread open on his half-constructed marble countertop.

“If you take this route, you’ll be able to see the best view of the Colorado River,” Steve says, pointing to a route from Flagstaff, AZ to the Grand Canyon. “But if you go this way, you can explore the Red Mountains.”

“Which would you prefer?” I ask our adventurous host.

Steve bites his lip and caresses his soul patch with his thumb and index finger. “I really want to say you should go through the Red Mountains. They’re one of my favorite spots. But that’s the only thing you’ll see on the route. The other route has 3 or 4 really cool stopping points.”

I wait silently, allowing Steve’s inner dialogue to play out.

“Go this way,” Steve says, concluding that we should bypass the Red Mountains.

“Sounds good,” I say.

“Remember to swing by the local AAA and pick up one of these maps too.”

And that’s exactly what I do.

Two shiny, new maps in hand, Riley and I set off for Flagstaff, AZ. After two hours of cruising along the speedy interstate, we jump onto Route 66. Yes, historic Route 66 – one of the first U.S. highways, created in 1926, and originally running 2,448 miles from Chicago, IL to Santa Monica, CA. We pass by gas stations, convenience stores, restaurants and hotels all boasting the numbers “66” in their name. After many miles of this gimmicky stretch of road, we merge back onto the quicker and more efficient interstate 40. The sun begins to set, painting the swirling clouds above us deep shades of gold, pink, blue and purple. The snow-capped mountains, seemingly forever in the distance, radiate a confident dark blue glow.

We arrive in Flagstaff shortly after 6pm. Rather than heading straight to our hotel like a boring, old couple, we decide to gander around the city’s downtown. First order of business is food. We blindly decide on Beaver Street Brewery. 3 succulent bratwursts, a fulfilling Portobello ravioli and a tasty local Pilsner later, Riley and I feel quite content. We spend the next 2 hours walking off our dinner while enjoying the many clothing and craft shops scattered throughout this quaint town. After realizing we desire every single item being sold in this town, we decide to head to the hotel.

A good night’s rest and a surprisingly diverse hotel breakfast later, we depart our Fairfield Inn for the Grand Canyon. As per Steve’s advice, we take a longer, more scenic route to this world renowned park. We approach Sunset Volcano crater, a volcanic cinder cone, covered in hardened black lava rock. The apex of this mountain is missing, as if bitten off. We then pass many hills and mountains encompassed by black sand, from which unusual vegetation grows. We continue increasing in elevation. Suddenly the picture-perfect clear day turns into an impenetrable fog. We’ve entered a cloud. Over the next 3 minutes the temperature drops from 51 degrees Fahrenheit to 31. We pass through 18 miles of Wupatki National Monument, unable to see any of it. Once again, Riley sits behind the wheel during an unexpectedly challenging drive. And once again, she impresses.

We park a short walk away from the Bright Angel trailhead. Not anticipating the snow, ice and slush covered terrain awaiting us, I wear my running shoes, having 18 months, 2 half marathons and 100’s of miles of tread on them. Riley, also wearing tennis shoes, walks a few steps behind me as I gingerly descend the slippery trail. We slip but avoid falling many times. Less than a half mile in, we pass a group of 4 fit looking men, staring fearfully at the canyon below them. “Let’s just turn around,” one of them says.

Undeterred, we continue our hike. After a mile, the ice ceases as the trail is exposed to the sun. Simultaneously, the view becomes even more stunning. An indescribable amount of space fills this trench we stand in, surrounded by rocks of various shades of red and brown. The plateau seems miles away, and in fact it is. We hike down another half mile. Mesmerized by the beauty we are witnessing, we climb atop a rock protruding farther than the others. Encased in the magnitude around me, I can’t help but think of how small I truly am.

The hike up is easier and quicker than the hike down. We pass many good-natured individuals cursing themselves for hiking as far down as they did. One boy sprints by us, slowing down only to explain that he needs to complete the trail in less than 20 minutes to prove his manhood to his father.

We drive through another gorgeous sunset towards the small town of Williams. We eat a satisfying Mexican meal at Poncho’s. Feeling refueled, we set off to our next destination.

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Into the Underworld

If you’re looking for an exciting 8 hours, the drive from Austin, TX to Carlsbad, NM is not for you. Aside from a handful of small towns, this drive consists solely of dried vegetation and empty road. On average we see less than one car per hour, and see more oil rigs than humans and animals combined. To pass the time, we play crossword puzzles, blast Phish through our car speakers and find excuses to pull over and stretch our legs.

After 4 hours of monotonous driving, my cell phone displays signs of reception. A town must be nearing. Moments later, we enter Mason, Texas, a town of 2,000 inhabitants. Seemingly the only awake resident works at the café we walk into. A fairly priced taco salad and roast beef sandwich later, Riley and I are back on the open road. Despite the topography not changing at all, leading us to wonder whether we’re actually just driving in circles, we arrive in Carlsbad, NM just after 8pm MST.

Tonight we’re camping. Seems like a reasonable thing to do for a young, adventurous couple. Especially since it’s saving us $80. We pull into the only open grocery store in town and load up on ground beef, vegetables, Weenie Beenies, beef jerky, aluminum foil, charcoal and water. Ironically, our campsite is across the street. Not quite the backcountry camping I imagined, but it sure is convenient. Using an old camping trick Riley learned back in her early teens, we season the purchased beef and vegetables, enclose the concoction in aluminum foil, and set it atop the grill. 30 minutes later – pure deliciousness. We light some candles in honor of the first night of Hanukkah, pop open a brew, and feast on our inexpensive, yet delightful, meal.

Once the food settles and the fire dies down, we realize it is freezing. Mid to high 30s didn’t seem so bad when talking to the campsite owner earlier in the day about the impending weather. Riley and I each put on three layers of clothing and bundle up in a single sleeping back and an airplane blanket inside my tent. With Riley and I relying solely on each other for warmth, sleep is hard to come by tonight.

It suddenly becomes uncomfortably warm beneath the blanket wrapped around Riley and my head. I unzip the tent flap and am blinded by the glare of the desert sun. It’s 8:30 in the morning and nature wants us awake. We munch on whatever foods we can find in our car and pack away our belongings. By 11a.m. we’re at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Although not quite the longest, deepest or widest, these caves are largely considered the most beautiful in the world. For 4 underground miles we explore Dogtooth Spars, Cave Pearls, Helictites, flowstones, stalactites, stalagmites and aragonites. We emerge from this fairy tale land unscathed, ready to treat ourselves to an authentic Mexican lunch; one not named La Salsita.

After a fulfilling meal, Riley asks if she can drive. Over the next 4 hours, we ascend to an altitude of 9,000 feet to Cloudcroft, NM; one of the highest elevations in the U.S. and descend 5,000 feet to Alamogordo, NM. I feel a bit unsettled as Riley slices through the Sacramento Mountains, among rain, snow, oncoming trucks, and pitch darkness. Despite me fearing for my life, Riley drives exceptionally well and we arrive at our Super 8 in one piece.

The only source of food at this hour is a Japanese/Chinese/Thai restaurant. As we order sushi, I can’t help but wonder where the restaurant obtains its fish from when situated in the middle of the desert. We return to our abode for the night and pass out. Having slept less than a handful of hours the night before and hiking for most of the morning and afternoon, we sleep like kings (and queens) tonight.

We wake up in time for the all-too-familiar continental breakfast. We then set out for White Sands National Monument, a not-too-well-known gem consisting of 275 square miles of snow-white sand. We stop by Staples and plead the store employee for an empty cardboard box, so we could use it to slide down the 50 foot sand dunes at White Sands.

Upon entering the park we drive 8 miles deep to the starting point of the longest hiking trail and the area with the largest sand dunes. Despite all our best efforts our pieces of cardboard refuse to slide more than a few inches before becoming immobilized by pounds of white sand. To our delight, the young quartet sitting behind us at breakfast shows up with flying saucer sleds and kindly offer us a ride. Riley and I slide down the steep sand dune at a much more respectable speed. Everyone laughs as I make a last second dive out of my sled to avoid crashing into my terrified girlfriend.

We hike barefoot for over 5 miles of sand dunes, coming across only a handful of people along the way. The sand is so white that it can easily be mistaken for snow. And by 2pm it begins to feel like snow as the sun lowers into the horizon. 3 hours of fresh desert air later, we get back into our vehicle and head to our next destination.

The strenuous hike has led us to a state of hunger. A promising billboard reassures us that a celebrated café is in the nearing town. 15 miles later we arrive at a dilapidated building, seemingly having been closed for the better part of the last century. Looking around, we find that the entire town has a similar appearance. Onto the next town. Unfortunately for our stomachs and bladders, the next town is 50 miles away. We arrive in this sleepy town and pass through its 1 mile diameter, slowly losing hope that we will ever eat again. Pleasantly surprised to have reception, I do a quick Google search and am pleased to find an open restaurant on the cusp of town. Another mediocre Mexican joint. But one that is very much needed in this time of extreme hunger.

Our appetites satisfied and our moods improved, we get back into the car. After 3 hours of high speed driving through darkness, we arrive in Santa Fe, NM. About 15 miles past the downtown exits, we pull off into a small mountain town. Another few miles later we turn onto an unlit road, boasting a sign that we are entering a land grant area. A little apprehensive about the lack of civilization around us, we continue driving until reaching an eerie looking house in the middle of nowhere. We have arrived at the home of our Couchsurfing host.