All the hits: week sixteen (in which we start our amazing journey along the legendary Pacific Coast Highway)

Los Angeles to San Francisco, California

The Pacific Coast Highway: This is one of those road-trip routes that has become legendary. Whether driving along the pacific coast on a day-trip or driving from Mexico to Canada, the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) is a really fun drive. Starting from Los Angeles, it took a while to get out of the massive city, and much of the initial PCH runs along Highway 101 which, while offering nice views of the beach, cliffs and ocean, it is a real freeway and so turnoffs are few and the scenery tends to speed by rather quickly. But once we got clear of the 101 near Las Cruces, things really opened up. The whole drive to Lompoc and through Vandenberg Air Force Base was beautiful. When the highway gets to Big Sur, it’s winding along cliff edges and through old growth redwood forest.

The Visitor Center at the Santa Barbara Marina: Even if you’re just passing through, grab a coffee (the Santa Barbara Roasting Company is good) and go to the Santa Barbara Visitor Center (located above the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum). After a short elevator ride, say “Hi” to the visitor center staff person behind their desk, and then head out onto the Visitor Center’s balcony, grab a seat on one of the comfortable couches, and enjoy gorgeous views of the harbor.

The Elephant Seals and Sea Lions: There are various points along the coast you can stop to view sea mammals of various species. We took in the views of some Elephant Seals lounging on the beach just north of San Simeon, California and caught a bunch of Sea Lions floating en masse off the Santa Cruz pier.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium: We were a little hesitant about visiting just because tickets were expensive and we had been previously disappointed at the Kennedy Space Center. But, enough people had recommended the Aquarium so we decided to go for it. Within 15 minutes the experience was worth it. Everything was impressive, but there were two installations that stole the show. The first was the jellyfish exhibit where we were surrounded by crystal blue tanks filled with dozens of different kinds of jellyfish floating and swimming in hypnotizing patterns. The second was the open sea exhibit where a 1.2 million gallon tank contains a variety of creatures found in the open sea including hammerhead sharks, 350kg tuna, and sea turtles. The tank is visible through a 90-foot pane of glass (one of the largest single panes of glass in the world) and we probably spent an hour just watching the fish and turtles swim. Oh, also there there were exhibits for puffins, penguins, and sea otters, all of which are super-cute.

Bonus: Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove (we only saw a couple, but come at the right time and apparently this grove is crammed full of Monarchs), the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes (we only drove past, but this was the filming location of the 1923 production of The Ten Commandments and most of the set is still buried here), perched on the cliffs overlooking the ocean is an amazing campground just north of Kirk Creek in Los Padres National Forest, Pheiffer Big Sur State Park (we spent a night here and hiked through the forest to a nice waterfall), El Cantaro (a delicious vegan Mexican restaurant in Monterey Bay).

San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley, California

The food: There is so much amazing food in San Francisco it’s hard to know where to start. On our first day, we had a fantastic veggie burger at VeganBurg, and then, after exploring, we enjoyed an amazing dinner at Shizen Vegan Sushi Bar & Izakaya. It was packed when we got there, but only got busier as the night went on. After, we headed to Zeitgeist, a busy local bar with reasonably priced drinks and a large patio. As expected, brunch is serious business here, so we grabbed some delectable sandwiches at Ike’s Place and headed to Dolores Park to watch people and eat. Oh, the sandwiches come with free lollipops. Hellz ya. That afternoon we stopped for vegan nachos and beer at Gracias Madre to celebrate our friends Mallory and Lindsay’s wedding from afar. Later picked up some yummy Thai food from Lers Ros to eat with Dora as she celebrated being (basically) finished packing. We had quite an experience at Lers Ros which you can read more about here. In Chinatown, we had a fantastic vegan meal at Enjoy Vegetarian Restaurant. In Berkeley we discovered more deliciousness. Dora’s new corner store had an amazing craft beer selection, an instant noodles prep station, and home made samosas baked by the owners. Further on was the Monterey Market, one of the most amazing green grocers we’d ever seen. It was just isles and isles of vegetables and fruit. For dinner we had pizza from Sliver, one of which had garlic as the only topping (other than sauce and cheese of course). Garlic-only pizza is a revelation. It was pretty good as a cold breakfast too.

The wonderful places to walk: Although it was super-windy, we came up the PCH and stopped at Golden Gate Park to see the beach and the old dutch windmills. This park is huge, and there is so much to do, you could easily spend the day. Afterwards, we spent some time walking around the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood, an old hippy-haven where every second store seems to be a smokeshop. The Mission District is full of great places to explore. It’s become a lot more gentrified (along with all of San Francisco), but every street has it’s own character and there are interesting shops everywhere. Wandering around downtown San Francisco, we stopped at the Contemporary Jewish Museum which was designed by Ben’s uncle. They had a real cool exhibit on local Rock & Roll legend Bill Graham. Then we walked up to North Beach to the top of Telegraph Hill, and took the elevator to the top of the Coit Tower for amazing views of the city, the old Alcatraz jail, and the Golden Gate Bridge. Descending back to the harbor, we walk down the Filbert Steps – a walk that passes through many gorgeous gardens, and beneath trees frequented by the local parrots of telegraph hill. We could see and hear them squawking about. So exciting. Once we had moved our operations to Berkeley, we were blown away by the plant life there as well. Peoples’ gardens are spectacular with so many giant flowers and succulents. Fennel grows wild and the air smells amazing. On our last day, we stopped at The Interval (a coffee shop and bar located in the headquarters of the Long Now Foundation – an organization dedicated to considering the future on a much longer scale), and then walked along the bay to the Wave Organ, an art installation that creates different sounds based on the waves and tides.

More friends: Ben’s friend Dora and her partner Ryan were moving the weekend we were in San Francisco, so we volunteered to help. We tried not to distract her too much, but got to spend a bunch of time hanging out. She was super generous and let us crash in her old place (right by the awesome Mission district), and then out in front of her beautiful new place in the much quieter Berkeley. The other bonus about having friends in places is that often they have kitchens and cooking in a real kitchen after being on the road for weeks is soooo nice.

The bookstores: There were so many great bookstores in San Francisco. Some of our favourites were the Bound Together Anarchist Collective Bookstore, Borderlands Books (a science fiction and fantasy bookstore and café), City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, E. M. Wolfman General Interest Small Bookstore (in Oakland), and Moe’s Books (a giant bookstore in Berkeley in which Amalia wanted to live in the store forever).

A Verb for Keeping Warm: Amalia has been knitting her first sweater while we’ve been on the road, but needed some space to wash it and block it out. Luckily, the lovely folks at this small Oakland knitting shop were super-kind and let her work there as well as leaving her knitting to dry for a few days.

Note: Camping on the southern California coast is expensive ($45 USD a night). So are day-use areas ($10 USD per day). Be prepared. The good news is that, visiting any one park gets you access to any other state parks during that same day (including the day you’re checking out of your campsite).

All the hits: week fifteen (from the desert to the beach)

The Deserts of Southern California

Mojave National Preserve: We headed back into the desert after leaving Las Vegas, and turned off the interstate into Mojave National Preserve (named after the desert in which it exists). A long scenic road winds south through the park, passed all the Joshua trees, and we were on the lookout for camping. We followed the signs and soon found ourselves on a dirt road. It seemed a bit strange that the campsite would’t be on a paved road (most national camp sites are), but a passing Ranger confirmed we were on the right track and so on we went bumping along the increasingly rough road as it led up into the hills. Eventually we did find the campground and pulled into a site that, while a little windy, offered a spectacular view of the valley, desert, and sunset. While we were impressed, Dodgy (our van), hadn’t enjoyed the drive as much. Hanging from its wires like a cartoon eyeball, one of the headlights had broken off its brackets and popped out. Ben got creative with some rope and we were able to anchor the light back in place temporarily. The next day, we continued on our way, but one wrong turn out of the campground and suddenly we were in a maze of backcountry dirt roads. While the GPS did it’s best, it didn’t know the difference between a semi-maintained backcountry road and a poorly maintained road meant for off-road vehicles. We did our best and, an hour or so later, got ourselves back onto pavement and out of the Park – with our jury-rigged light still in place and just enough gas to get us to a station.

Joshua Tree National Park: Joshua Tree isn’t unique for the trees (Mojave has lots too), but it is unique because it overlaps two bordering deserts (the Mojave and the Sonoran). The difference between the two deserts is mostly elevation (the Mojave is about 3,000 feet higher than the Sonoran) and, of course, that means lots of different plants and cacti. Joshua Tree is the more visited and accessible of the two parks, and has some amazing teddy bear cholla and octillo forests. We took a few hikes, including one on local geology, and got the headlight fixed in a nearby town.

Palms to Pines Scenic Byway: Another gorgeous drive, this one through the mountains east of Los Angeles. A steep set of switchbacks leads up a mountain outside of Coachella, and then the road follows the summit with spectacular views before dropping back down into a populated valley where we grabbed a more major highway into Los Angeles, the city of Angels.

Bonus: Salvation Mountain (a large, weird, and colourful alt-christian monument built by one man).

Los Angeles, California

Good friends of Ben’s had recently moved to Santa Ana (just south of Lost Angeles but part of the urban sprawl that covers this part of the coast), so we stopped for the weekend to visit. Mike and his partner Seiko were super-awesome hosts, and we continue to crave more of the traditional Japanese dinner that Seiko made us.

The Beaches: Mike and Seiko took us on a tour of the local beaches and towns. Los Angeles and Orange counties are definitely places built for drivers as it’s difficult to get anywhere without a car. Luckily, we could all fit in their vehicle and Dodgy got a much deserved break. Despite the smog, the weather in L.A. is pretty perfect, combining the sunny heat of the desert with the moisture of the ocean. Both of us felt an instinctual relief with the sight of the sea and all the lush plant life that depends on water. We enjoyed four beaches: Laguna Beach with it’s rocky outcroppings, Newport beach with it’s sandy beach, quaint (but expensive) beach houses and pier, Huntington Beach which is popular for surfing, and Long Beach where we got to take in the massive Queen Mary (an old ocean liner permanently tied up to the dock).

Hanging with friends: We had a wonderful time with Mike and Seiko, exploring a bunch as well as just relaxing in their awesome apartment, drinking, and hanging out with their two gorgeous and adorable cats, Lemon and Ash. At some point on our trip, we decided to wait for the Pacific coast before eating sushi again. So, with that goal in mind, we headed to Sushi on Fire as a group and had a delicious meal. We also had some good beer and food at the Belmont Brewing Company which is right on the beach.

Downtown Los Angeles: As stated earlier, most of this part of California is just urban development, so it took an hour of highway driving to get from Santa Ana to downtown Los Angeles. The only reason we knew we’d arrived was because the buildings were so much older (and okay, there were some skyscrapers). Downtown L.A. is actually pretty cool. Grand Central Market had a bunch of great vendors and then there’s The Last Bookstore – probably one of the coolest book shops we’ve found on the trip (super tall ceilings, multiple floors, and a horror section located within an old bank vault – what!?). After a drive through Chinatown we stopped at Skylight Books which has an amazing selection of super-radical books. Then we headed up to the Griffith Observatory to get a sight of the Hollywood sign, but the Observatory itself is pretty sweet. For lunch we had some amazing Thai food at Bulan Thai Vegetarian, headed to Venice Beach for some coffee but it was super windy so we didn’t stay long before heading up the Pacific Coast highway through Santa Monica (which also seemed cool) and out of town.

Bonus: Rose Bakery Café (we had an amazing veggie replica of a fast food burger).

Side note: Gas prices in California have, so far, been substantially more expensive than the rest of the country. Cheap gas costs the same here as in Big Bend State Park in remote southern Texas.

All the hits: week fourteen (Canyonero edition)

Eastern Arizona

Petrified Forest (and Painted Desert) National Park: Two amazing landscapes in one, the painted desert and petrified forest showcase some incredible features of Arizona’s eastern desert. The painted desert is an area where erosion has exposed layers of earth of many different colours. Some parts of the desert are many different shades of red, while others are blue and purple. On the long drive through the park we got to experience so many different landscapes and, with clouds constantly passing overhead, waiting a few minutes would result in all the colours shifting. Further on, when we were hiking the Blue Mesa, we found ourselves in the middle of a rain/hail storm. While windy and cold, the effect of the storm on the colours was surprising. The oranges and blues and purples became more vibrant, even in the subdued lighting.

Progressing through the park, we came across more and more petrified wood. Millions of years ago, a unique sequence of events caused massive trees to fall into a river and become completely saturated with water. Then, as time passed, the biological matter in the tree was replaced with various minerals causing the entirety of these trees to become magnificently coloured rocks that look like tree trunks. In some parts of the park, they were pretty much everywhere. The area’s Indigenous peoples even used to build with them. We finished the day cold and wet, but in awe of the amazing power and beauty of nature.

Las Marias: Following our trip to the painted desert, we were tired and hungry. It was Sunday and so many area restaurants were closed, but we stumbled into Las Marias, a small Mexican restaurant in Winslow, Arizona. What a surprise. The food was super-affordable and amazingly delicious.

Walnut Canyon National Monument: We wanted to ensure Ben’s parents got a better look at cliff dwellings, so we headed to Walnut Canyon National Monument just outside of Flagstaff. A unique site with hundreds of dwellings, many of which are located on a kind of island in the middle of the canyon. We descened from the visitors center and walked a narrow path around the island, peering into some dwelling and stepping into others. Along the way, we were also treated to some very nice views of the surrounding canyon walls worn into spectacular patterns by the wind.

Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki National Monuments: On our way to the Grand Canyon, we decided to stop at Sunset Crater National Monument while the weather was good (it was supposed to rain), but the weather held, so we continued to the adjoining Wupatki National Monument. Sunset Crater features a fairly recent (but extinct) volcano that is part of a larger range of volcanic activity in the Flagstaff area. The San Francisco Peaks (the remains of a former stratovolcano) are just north of Flagstaff and were regularly visible on our hikes in the area. Peaked with snow, they are the highest point in Arizona and look a little lonely. Sunset Crater Volcano was much smaller, but boasted an impressive lava field upon which we were able to walk and explore – very cool. Driving north we were presented with several impressive pueblos. The Wukoki pueblo was interesting in that is was three stories high and built upon a large rock outcropping that gave it a expansive view of the surrounding countryside.

Bonus: Homolovi State Park (a nice campground out in the middle of the desert with little in the way of shelter, amazing views, and some ancient ruins to explore)

The Grand Canyon and Zion

The Grand Canyon: Everything we had done since Ben’s parents arrived had been a kind of buildup to our visit to the Grand Canyon – viewed as the climax of this segment of the trip. Ironically, we were so busy getting settled at the campsite that we didn’t get to see the Grand Canyon until the day after we arrived. But the next morning we walked down from the campsite to the edge of the canyon and spent several moments just absorbing the sight. It is truly spectacular and really hard to even conceptualize in person, never mind describe with words. It is massive (ten miles across and disappearing into the distance in both directions), it is beautiful (so many colours, peaks, and valleys), it is amazing. We spent much of the day walking along its edge, obsessing over all the different views, rock formations, and the small glimpses we got of the Colorado River, far away at the bottom. The Grand Canyon, unsurprisingly, has a unique geological history – the result of millions of years of compounded sediment, raised up as the Colorado Plateau, and then eroded by the Colorado River.

On our second day, we descended into the canyon. Our initial hope was to get a permit to camp at the bottom, but the campground by the river is in high demand and is completely full within days of becoming available for online reservations. And the canyon is so large and deep that you are told not to even try hiking to the bottom and back in the same day because you will not make it. We made it about half way down before turning back. While we thought about going further, as soon as were were walking up hill again, we all agreed we had made the right decision. The hike itself was a nice break from the all the gift shops and tour busses on the rim. While beautiful and breath-taking, the canyon is a tourist trap of sorts, and hiking into the canyon is really the only way to escape the people. Afterwards we celebrated with beer, ice cream, and showers.

We spent our third day driving east along the rim of the canyon (through small flurries of rain, snow, and hail) and stopped often to take in more amazing views. Every stop offered something new and breathtaking to absorb. Finding views that showed more of the river gave us a better sense of just how deep the canyon is.

Zion National Park: We hadn’t planned the last few days of Ben’s parents’ visit ahead of time, but, following many recommendations, decided to take the long way around the canyon and visit Zion National Park. We entered the Park from the eastern entrance which is not the main entrance most people come through, but is the grandest way to enter the park. We descended thousands of feet to the Virgin River valley through spectacular rock mountains on a small twisting road through tunnels and sharp switch backs beside steep cliff faces. Camping in the park is limited, but we found space in Springdale, a town that has sprung up just outside the southern entrance to the park. The south-western part of the park is the most popular and where most of the hikes start from. Much is accessible via the free park shuttle and we spend a lot of time riding the shuttle, learning about the park, and getting off at different stops to walk some of the shorter and easier trails.

Unlike the Grand Canyon, Zion is a much more engrossing and interactive experience. You can explore so much more without committing to a multi-day hike, and some of Zion’s mountains, canyons, and cliff-faces are also impressive. The two most popular hikes (neither of which we did) are the Narrows (where you hike up the Virgin River canyon in the water (because you are walled in by sheer cliffs on both sides) and Angel’s Landing (where you walk up a narrow path way with thousand-foot drop-offs on both sides, only a chain to hold onto, and dozens of other hikers pushing past you or getting in your way). The narrows was closed, and none of us felt like pushing through the crowds to risk Angel’s Landing (have we mentioned that Ben has been hiking mostly in loafers… so silly). While eating lunch on the first day we were treated to a rare sighting of a California Condor. We definitely want to return to Zion and more broadly, Utah. It was so beautiful, and there was so much more to do.

Bonus: The drive from the Grand Canyon to Zion National Park (a long but beautiful drive, part of which cuts through the Navajo Nation which includes rolling hills, impressive gorges and amazing rocks)

Las Vegas, Nevada

The drive from Zion National Park to Las Vegas: Ben’s parents were flying out of Las Vegas so, for better or for worse, we were gonna be there for a couple of nights. But first we had to get there, and while part of the journey involved some sprawl, much of the drive (through northern Arizona and through the Lake Mead Recreational Area) was really beautiful.

Veggie House: Despite the garish entertainment and casinos, Las Vegas does have some great food. Veggie House is a vegan Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. The food was really good and really fresh and Ben had one of the best desserts of his life there – uncharacteristically, he was fully against sharing.

The Bronze Café and The Center: The Center is an LGBTQ community centre in downtown Las Vegas and is a really nice space which also has an amazing café. Mostly vegan, the sandwiches were really yummy and the desserts were half-price so we got lots!!

Writer’s Block: A pretty amazing bookshop/book publishing house we came upon which has a wonderfully curated selection of books, a great philosophy section, and the ability to adopt fake birds … not sure about that one. Also, there was a big fluffy bunny.

Downtown Container Park: Completing our impressive experience in downtown Las Vegas (which is not where the big casinos are – because they are technically outside of the city of Las Vegas), we visited an urban container park. Similar to the development we stopped at in Albuquerque, this had a much nicer vibe, a larger variety of shops and restaurants, and an awesome playground in the middle. Ben bought some cactus jerky which was an experience. Oh, and by the entrance to the container park is a giant mechanical praying mantis that shoots fire out of its antennae (that’s characteristically made appearances at Burning Man).

Bonus: The Hoover Dam (lots of tourists, but it’s still pretty impressive), basking in 35 degree weather by a pool (because really)

 

All the hits: week thirteen (family edition)

Phoenix, Arizona

Taliesin West: Ben’s parents flew into Phoenix to join us on our trip for two weeks. After we picked them up from the airport and had breakfast (for us) and lunch (for them), we embarked on a tour of some of the many Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in Phoenix. He spent a lot of time here in later life so, as a result, ended up building a lot here too. While many of the buildings were private residences and hard to appreciate, the main feature of the day was Taliesin West, the architectural school Wright designed and built in the hills north-east of the city. We had booked tickets for the main 90-minute tour and it was very thorough – we got to see the inside of many of the buildings and had a very knowledgable tour guide (though he wasn’t very good at hearing or answering questions). Having seen several other Wright buildings on our trip, it was fascinating to see how he attempted to integrate the buildings with the surrounding desert landscape.

Green: After a long day of driving around Phoenix, we were all famished. As stated earlier, finding vegan and vegetarian restaurants on the trip has not been difficult, and our awesome Phoenix hosts Ari and Erin immediately suggested Green Restaurant for dinner. Walking distance from their house (and the cute pool house in the backyard we called home for two nights), Green was basically vegan fast-food – and attempted to fill the cravings for “bad” food more easily satisfied for meat eaters. The food was delicious and filling … and then we were shown to the vegan desert place next door where we proceeded to eat even more. It was a delightfully gluttonous experience.

Heard Museum: The Heard Museum also came highly recommended by many people, so we were eager to check it out before leaving the city. The Heard contains a massive collection of south-western Indigenous artifacts and art – both ancient and contemporary. One awesome feature of the museum is that it offers regular free tours of the different exhibits. Even better than the phone tours that have become so popular, having an enthusiastic guide helped to provide context and a deeper understanding of the many works and galleries.

Bonus: Desert Roots Kitchen (fresh and yummy vegan food), Lola Coffee (great coffee place Ari took us to and where we made new friends – hi Wayne!), First Christian Church (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright)

Cottonwood, Arizona and area

Mingus Mountain Scenic Road: We decided to take the scenic route from Phoenix to Cottonwood (where we would be camping for a few nights), and boy these scenic byways rarely disappoint. The road wound up into the mountains through beautiful forests (yes, in Arizona) and, when it began winding back down towards Cottonwood the view really opened up. Far in the distance you could see the red rock cliffs of Sedona. Perched on the side of this mountain is the former mining town of Jerome. While we didn’t stop at any of the many shops or bars, it seemed like a pretty cool place (as long as your okay with heights).

Dead Horse Ranch State Park: So, as it turns out, Arizona is not all desert. In fact, a lot of it isn’t. Dead Horse Ranch turned out to be a gorgeous campground in a lush river valley with lots of trees and water for birds. We snagged a nice isolated spot, and in addition to checking out the local sights we spent half a day hiking the Park which transitions from riverside paths to marshy ponds to desert mesas. On our hike we saw lots of birds including a great blue heron and two bald eagles who, for a moment, shared a perch in a dead tree.

Montezuma Castle and Well National Monuments: These two national monuments are close to one another and provide some interesting things to see. As cliff dwellings go, Montezuma was large and well-preserved, but there is no way to get close enough to see inside or get a better sense of its scale. Bandalier National Monument is still our favourite for exploring Cliff Dwellings (though Walnut Canyon (below) comes close). At the Well we discovered that it was only very recently that scientists identified where the water source comes from (there is a deep layer of muddy water at the bottom that obscured many efforts to reveal the water’s source). The trail allows you to descend down to the level of the water in the well, and then over and down to where the water seeps out through the rock and into a canal built by Indigenous peoples. In addition to lots of lizards and some ducks, we also spotted another Great Horned Owl and its tiny babies.

Tuzigoot National Monument: Probably one of the more excavated of the pueblos we’ve come across, Tuzigoot allows visitors to climb up to one of its higher levels and take in some amazing views of the surrounding valley. It was so close to our campground that (if not for all the trees) we probably could have seen our tent. We also almost got to see a Rattlesnake. Apparently, they frequent this monument and one was spotted on the trail … but it slithered away before the Ranger could find it.

Sedona, Arizona

All the rocks, mountains, and cliffs: Sedona is the name of a town in central Arizona. As a town, it has the worst kind of touristy shops and strip mall developments. But you have to go to Sedona because of where it is – smack in the middle of a breathtaking red landscape. In every direction red cliffs and towers climb out of the valley. The formations are impossible to do justice to in either words or photos. To find yourself looking upon these majestic mountains of rock is a singular experience. We wish we had more time here to hike. There are trails everywhere – starting at the ends of residential streets or way out of town.

Cockscomb Trail and the climb up Doe Mountain: We chose the Cockscomb trail because it was a good length and less popular because it’s a short drive out of town. The hike was really satisfying, offering many views of Doe Mountain (which it circles) and the other formations walling up the surrounding valley. The wild flowers were abundant and we didn’t run into too many people. Towards the end of the hike we crossed another trail that led straight up to the top of the mountain. My mom bravely set aside her fear of heights and we all ascended the steep climb together. Totally. Worth. It. The top is a flat mesa that could be explored, and the views from it would even more amazing than from the ground.

Tamaliza Market: After our long hike we stopped at this Mexican take-out restaurant for tamales. We had had some in Tucson and, while they were good, they weren’t this amazing. But at Tamaliza they definitely know what they’re doing. The tamales were totally delicious. I want one now just writing this.

The drive from Sedona to Flagstaff: It is amazing just how varied the geography and ecosystems of Arizona are. We left Sedona for Flagstaff, driving up the Oak Creek Canyon. The drive along the bottom of the canyon was beautiful with the water streaming by and trees climbing cliffs to either side of us. Then we climbed out of the canyon, all the way up to the rim and into a forest of massive pine trees. From the top there was a cool viewpoint where we could look down at the road we had driven up and then continued our drive through the Cococino National Forest all the way to Flagstaff.

Bonus: ChocolaTree (yummy food and scrumptious deserts that Ben was “forced” to eat because of his birthday)

All the hits: week twelve (in which we explore the Sonoran Desert)

Sorry for the lack of updates over the past few weeks. Two of Ben’s parents (he has four) came down to join our adventure, and we wanted to make sure they got to see as much as possible and not just us on our computers. We’ll try to fire-off a few posts this week to catch up.

Tucson, Arizona

We really liked Tucson. While it’s a large sprawling city, it had a surprising amount of culture and personality. We spent two weekends here, in between other explorations of southern Arizona. As we walked around the city, we noticed a local love of glass-blowing with different shops and even bars containing glass-blowing studios visible through large windows. Some of the creations were really intricate and impressive and it was hypnotizing to see them work.

Revolutionary Grounds: We immediately fell in love with this coffee/book shop. It had a great collection of radical books, excellent coffee, really fast wifi, a back patio, and delicious treats like prickly pear lemonade (made with prickly pear cactus) and vegan deserts. Revolutionary Grounds became our go-to hangout spot in the city and we returned over and over again and ordered the prickly pear lemonade each time.

Fourth Street: The “hip” street in town running from downtown to the university, we walked up and down it a few times to checkout the shops and bars. Lots to see and do. The second weekend, there was a massive street-fair. The street was closed off to cars and boy was it crowded. People were allowed to drink in the streets which was nice, but the booze and food were really expensive and none of the stalls really interested us. We sought shelter from the crowd at Revolutionary Grounds of course.

Tohono Chul Park: We visited this not-for-profit park first thing in the morning to participate in a bird-watching walk. Although it’s located in the city, it felt pretty isolated. We saw a tiny hummingbird’s nest, lots of birds, flowers, cacti, and other plants and wildlife. The park was a great primer on the local desert environment.

Saguaro National Park: Saguaro are the really tall cacti you see so often in cartoons and illustrations of the desert and this is the only part of the United States in which they grow. There are two parts to the park (one west and one east of Tucson, but we saw them both). The cacti are like large trees and take a long time to grow – if one has an arm, it’s at least 60 years old, and many are well over 100 years old. We watched a presentation on local lizards that was fascinating and learned about the Zebra-Tailed Lizard (which pretends to be a scorpion when threatened), the Gila Monster (which scientists thought was rare but just spends 90% of its time hanging out underground), as well as a species of lizard that are ALL female and clone themselves to reproduce.

Bonus: The Baja Café, the many Tucson farmers markets, Café Passé (had delicious vegan sausages), The Big Short (so this is a movie you could see anywhere and probably have already, but we saw it at The Screening Room in Tucson and if you haven’t seen it, you need to), Savaya Coffee Shop (they had amazing music playing the entire time and “science coffee”), Café Marcel (hung out here while the van had some work done and enjoyed some great crepes), Tania’s 33 Mexican food (super delicious and unpretentious), Nimbus Brewing Company (while not the best beer, the giant warehouse interior was great and you could sit on the patio and watch jets from the airfield next door take off), Food Conspiracy Co-Op, Antigone Books (an awesome feminist book store).

Southern Arizona

Chiracahua National Monument: Lucky for us, there was a last-minute cancellation, so we got to spend the night at Chiracahua. While doing dishes at the campsite, we were surrounded by a half-dozen Mexican Jays, and treated to a performance by an Acorn Woodpecker. The next day we explored the park. It was a bit challenging because the main road in was under construction, so there was only one trailhead into the park from the visitor’s center which everyone was using (people were parked everywhere). It also meant that we had to hike an hour into the mountains to get to any of the other trails. It took us 4 hours to hike 12 km and ascend 1500 feet up into the “Heart of the Rocks”, but it was worth it. Chiracahua is filled with amazing rock formations, many with rocks balanced atop one another. While they’re hidden away up in the mountains, the formations and views of the surrounding wilderness were spectacular.

Bisbee: This little mountain town is like something out of Europe. With tiny, winding, steep streets, houses and businesses are stacked beside, and almost atop each other. Formerly a mining town, Bisbee now attracts a lot of (apparently older hippy) tourists. We spent a night in the van at the Queen Mine RV Park which had great showers and is across the highway from the main street and perched right on the edge of a giant open-pit copper mine. In addition to a lot of hotels, the town is home to the Old Bisbee Brewing Company (where we enjoyed a sampling of the local offerings with free popcorn), Thuy’s Noodle Shop (where we enjoyed delicious vegan pho), and the Bisbee Bicycle Brothel. The Brothel is part store and part bike museum. The owner gave us a tour that included the fascinating history of pretty much every bike and frame in the shop.

Coronado National Memorial: This park is located right on the Mexican border in southern Arizona. On our way, we stopped to make coffee when two strange things happened. First, it started to hail. We had barely seen precipitation in the previous two months, so hail in the south of Arizona seemed very out of place. Next, we were passed by a giant convoy of probably a dozen border patrol trucks – we assume it was a new shift starting, or something. Deciding to forego a long hike given the nippy and haily weather, we drove up a steep dirt road to Montezuma Pass Overlook where we could see miles and miles in every direction. It was an amazing view, but we weren’t the only ones enjoying it. On both sides of the parking lot there were large border patrol trucks and trailers setup to continually monitor the border in both directions.

All the hits: week eleven (in which we slow it down and climb some rocks)

Las Cruces, New Mexico and the surrounding area

Camping beside an air force base: One you get west of the Mississippi, it becomes easier to find free campsites. There’s a lot more public land out this way, so we have made the most of the opportunities to camp for free. Once such opportunity was the night before visiting White Sands National Monument. The monument is located in the middle of the massive White Sands Missile Range (at 2,400 square kilometers it is the largest military installation in the United States), so we assumed that finding nearby campsites would be challenging. But, as luck would have it, just five minutes down the road from the national monument was Holloman Air Force Base which has a small piece of land open for public camping. While they’re weren’t any facilities to speak of, it was convenient and we got to watch some drones and fighter jets fly around above us.

White Sands National Monument: Similar to the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado, White Sands protects a large field of sand dunes in southern New Mexico. While the dunes in White Sands are much smaller, they are also, as the name implies, remarkably white. This is because the dunes are formed by pure gypsum crystals – a very rare thing. Visitors can rent sand sleds and ride down the slopes or just hang out in the sun and that’s what 95% of them were doing on this busy day. We were very alone on our hike. Trudging several miles up and down dunes in the stifling heat, we were grateful we had opted not to climb the sand dunes in Colorado, as it is fairly tedious. Once we got away from the crowds, we really got a sense of what it could be like to be stranded and trudging across the desert. It was a “do it this one time” experience and Amalia loved the sun.

Water diversion: Definitely a miss. It’s sad how many rivers (98% of them) are dried up in this part of the country – and not for natural reasons. In northern New Mexico, we criss-crossed the Rio Grande several times. It was a similar size where it wrapped around Big Bend (which should be a red flag since that’s hundreds and hundreds of miles down river where it should be bigger). But, when we crossed the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico, it just wasn’t there. The water had all be diverted for use by people, industry, and agriculture leaving behind a dry riverbed. Quite sad.

Bonus: Sabertooth in El Paso (a restaurant with some very interesting and delicious nachos), Coas Books in Las Cruces (a huge and epic used book store), High Desert Brewing Company in Las Cruces (yummy beer and something delicious we’d somehow not come across previously, green chili cheese fries).

Silver City, New Mexico and the surrounding area

Silver City: This is a pretty cool town in south-west New Mexico. We were running ahead of schedule and so needed somewhere to hang-out for a while and Silver City seemed like a good option – big enough that it would have everything we needed, but small enough that we could easily take trips out into the wilderness. Car camping in Silver City proved to by pretty sweet, as there were some nice, dark, quiet dead-end streets right downtown. There were several public bathrooms, though somehow we never actually used them. We enjoyed strolling the main street and its many shop, delicious green chili corn soup and coffee at the Curious Kumquat, beer at the Little Toad Creek Brewery, brunch at the Adobe Springs Café, laundry at Laundryland USA (which had excellent wifi), and coffee at several different excellent coffee shops.

City of Rocks State Park: When we asked the server at the Curious Kumquat what we should do in the Silver City area, she said we should drive down to City of Rocks State Park and that it was her favourite place in all of New Mexico. She was right, the park was amazing. Located in the middle of the desert, the park is made up of hundreds of rock formations just screaming to be explored and climbed. It was like a playground of rocks and was so cool to explore. Even better, most of the campsites were located up in the rock formations, making each of them unique and interesting. Our site was in a large curved curtain of rock that enclosed much of the space. The site across from us had a picnic table located in an rock alcove. The first night we found we had a very special neighbour. A large great horned owl perched on a rock just beside out campsite, snoozing, preening, and preparing for night. As it started to stretch its wings and hoot, we heard the answer of another owl elsewhere in the park. After running around the rocks for a bit, we found it’s mate, fortified in a nest in a high hollow in another rock formation. They chatted for much of the evening as the moon rose in the sky, and constellations took shape above us. Then, they began hunting as we settled into our tent. Another neat feature of the park is the planet walk, a hike that starts with a plaque representing the sun, and then moves from planet to planet at distances to scale with the actual solar system. The hike is a great way to get a better sense of the immense distance between the different planets.

Copper mines: This area of New Mexico is known for it’s open-pit copper mines – it’s an industry that brought a lot of people to the area. And while these monstrosities are devastating to the environment, they are something to behold in person. Huge terraced mountains and pits blanket the landscape as the earth is scraped up for the metal it contains. The scale and colour is astounding.

Trail of the Mountain Spirits Scenic Byway: Silver City is positioned where the desert meets the mountains so, depending on which way you drive, you’ll end up in a completely different ecosystem. This byway took us up into Gila National Forest on a breathtaking, and sometimes heart-stopping, drive. As mentioned earlier, water is rare in these parts, appearing sometimes in dwindling creek beds. So, when we came across a small waterfall and then Lake Roberts, a lake in the middle of the woods created with human-built dam, we were pretty surprised. This being the most water we’ve seen in a while, we decided to spend the afternoon and night by the lake before heading on. Located at the end of the road is Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. The dwellings were similar, but smaller in scale than those we saw at Bandalier National Monument, but the trail we took afterwards was the highlight. We hiked up a mountain valley, taking our shoes off several times to wade across a freezing cold mountain river, and finally arrived at the Lightfeather Hotsprings. The springs enter the river in several places including from an opening in the bank where a steamy cave marks the place where scalding hot water seeps out of the earth and mixes with the cold river water. Year after year, visitors have come here and used the rocks to regulate the flow of hot and cold water to create pools that are just the right temperature to lounge in.

All the hits: week ten (in which spring break ruins our Big Bender)

More New Mexico!

Tent Rocks National Monument: Tent Rocks was really beautiful. As someone else said, it’s “a real jewel”. Tent rocks are pointed rocks formations that look a bit like … tents. Often they have a little cap on top that protects the rest of the structure from erosion. We’ve seen these formations in a couple of other places, but these were, by far, the largest. The Cave Loop Trail to see the tent rocks from below was nice, but the real fun was the Slot Canyon Trail. It was a hike unlike any we’ve done so far as it had us ducking under boulders and twisting our way through narrow channels between towering cliff walls. After a steep climb out of the canyon, we were at the top of a mesa with a spectacular view from which we could see the tent rocks, valley, and even our campsite and the lake off in the distance. Utterly gorgeous.

El Patio de Albuquerque: A delicious Mexican restaurant in Albuquerque where we went to eat. We were told to try green chilis while in New Mexico, so we were sure to get all our food covered in the delicious sauce. To quote our server “you can put green chilis on anything”.

The Santa Fe Brewing Company: Located in the Green Jeans Farmery, the entire development is notable for being built using old shipping containers. They’re placed on one another in quite an interesting way and the space is definitely unique with lots of patio space. The beer was delicious, but while we love patios, patios located right beside the highway kind of mud the vibe. Anywhere else and we probably would have stayed longer.

Carlsbad Caverns: Many people had told us to go here and, after exploring these colossal caves, all we can say is … you should go here! It is almost like a dream to think of it – so different from reality above ground. Normally accessible by elevator, they were broken when we visited (and won’t be fixed until June) so everyone had to do it the old-fashioned way. Walking to the natural entrance, we hiked 2km down into the cave. The main, massive cavern is called “The Big Room” and, at 8.2 acres, it is “the largest single cave chamber by volume in North America”. The system open to visitors is all very dramatically lit, but it’s so fascinating to think what this must have been like to explore when pitch black. After spending some time wandering around and inspecting all the fascinating rock formations (including a view down into the lower caves – the entire cave system still hasn’t been explored), it was time to hike back up again. Did we mention we descended and then ascended over 750 feet? According to the Ranger, that’s the equivalent of climbing the stairs of an eighty-story building. The caves are always about 13°C and very humid so we emerged exhilarated but sweating buckets.

Bonus: Pecos National Monument (we didn’t have a lot of time here, but it wasn’t that large a site), Cochiti Campground (a really nice new campground on Cochiti Lake which is formed by the Cochiti dam on the Rio Grande), Ponderosa Pines (because their bark smells deliciously like vanilla), Petroglyph National Monument (a park just outside of Albuquerque where you can see Indigenous markings on all sorts of rocks), spending the night car camping on a mountain farm surrounded by dogs, horses, sheep, goats, chickens, and donkeys (Thanks Miriam and Ruby!)

More Texas!

Guadalupe Mountains National Park: Located in the remote west corner of Texas, these mountains are the state’s highest points. Boy are they beautiful to behold. We camped at the park overnight and hiked the McKittrick Canyon trail the next morning. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what trails we should hike when our time is so limited, and in this case we may not have picked the best one. While the canyon is beautiful and diverse in its fauna (much of this part of the Texas is scrub desert with not many large trees – the canyon had many), the entire trail was gravel and not that nice to walk on. Oh well.

Marathon: There are some really cool small towns in west Texas. Marathon is truly tiny. One of those towns that only has one of anything, if anything at all. But while other towns of this size that we’ve driven through have seemed quite run-down and/or abandoned, Marathon was a vibrant tiny community anchored around a nice hotel and a few restaurants.

Marfa: Marfa is weird – in the good way – but still weird. It’s a small town of several thousand with a vibrant art and food community. But, it’s kind of hard to tell. On driving through we saw a couple of food trucks and a bunch of young hipster-looking locals and tourists milling about, but most things appeared closed. In fact, the town appeared similar to many of the run-down desert towns we had already driven through. Most of the buildings looked abandoned except for the fact they were generally in excellent condition. On closer inspection, one of them turned out to be a very fancy hotel, and many others galleries – but there was very little in terms of exterior decoration and signage to communicate this. Even after spending a couple of days at the local saloon, coffee shop, and grocery store, we still couldn’t really figure out where all the tourists wandering the streets were going. Marfa is also famous for the “Marfa Mystery Lights”, a strange phenomenon where at night, and just outside of town, strange and unexplained lights can be seen hovering south of the highway. We stayed up late to try and see them (with about fifty other people, but nothing unusual caught our eyes). For more about the oddity that is Marfa, read this.

Fort Davis National Monument: Located just outside the current town of Fort Davis, the historic fort contains dozens of buildings, many of which are still being excavated and repaired. While in generally good condition, many of the floor boards in the building had rotted away and archeologists hadn’t yet taken advantage to dig down into the dirt to see what they could find. Just like Fort Larned, the buildings that had been restored were incredibly detailed with lots of original furniture from the era. We took a lovely nature walk that gave a beautiful view of the fort before heading south again.

Later on, we would return to camp just north of Fort Davis at a lovely free campsite in a desert canyon. There was a nature trail leading to the top of a hill beside the campsite, and we found ourselves just a ten-minute drive from the McDonald observatory (which we only visited because they have bathrooms and a water fountain).

Big Bend National Park: Originally Big Bend had not been part of our itinerary, but several people talked about just how remote and beautiful it was and, since it wasn’t that far out of our way, we decided to check it out. The first time we drove down it was a Saturday afternoon, and though we spent hours driving mostly emptiness, upon rounding a corner into the park, we suddenly found ourselves in a long line of cars waiting to enter the park. Finally getting to the gate we were told every single campsite was taken (including those in the back country). As it happened, we had wandered down to Big Bend on the weekend bridging elementary/high school and college spring breaks – possibly the busiest weekend of the year. We decided to explore some of the other small towns mentioned above and return on the Monday with the hopes of things having calmed down somewhat.

We returned to Big Bend early Monday morning with the hope of snagging a campsite, but, once again, everything was booked up. We decided to spend the day in the park anyway and find somewhere outside to camp. After doing a few trails in the morning (one into a spectacular canyon along the Rio Grande, and another to some very warm hot springs) we ran into another issue. There was nowhere to park at the other trails. At some point during the day, so many people had entered the park that every available parking space and road-side shoulder near any trailhead was full of cars. We had nowhere to stop, and so being hot, and at this point, somewhat frustrated, we decided to abandon (what was a very beautiful park), and find a nearby campsite. As it turned out, most of the campsites outside of the park were also packed, but, having a mattress in the van, all we needed was a parking space in a parking lot and that was something we were able to find (the site also had showers, a total bonus).

El Camino del Rio Scenic Drive: Driving West from Big Bend along the border, we took the El Camino del Rio along the north side of the Rio Grande. It was a spectacular drive up and down hills, winding in and out of canyons, with amazing views and some pretty cool rock formations.

A note about the US/Mexican border: You might think that we’d be free to drive around the southern states freely. Unfortunately, that is not the case. The US Border Patrol has dozens of permanent and roaming checkpoints north of the border. You can’t go to Big Bend without returning through one of them. That means, having your passport ready, being pulled over to the side of the road, being interviewed by a border guard, and having a border guard dog conduct an inspection of your vehicle for “illegal” immigrants and drugs. We have now driven through these checkpoints four times and expect to get stopped at more until we get further away from the border. Future travelers, be prepared and yes, it is frightening – especially for Mexican, Latina/o, and Spanish folks.

Bonus: Roadrunners (we’ve seen a bunch now and the cartoon is surprisingly accurate in it’s depiction of the way they move – especially when they hop), Frama and Plaine coffeeshops/laundromats in Marfa and Alpine, the Lost Horse Saloon.

All the hits: week nine (Colorado and Northern New Mexico)

Volcanos and mountains

Capulin Volcano: As soon as we entered New Mexico, mountains began to rise before us. But our first stop wasn’t just any mountain, it was a volcano. Capulin volcano is an impressive (and inactive) cinder cone volcano. There are several trails at the bottom, but the main feature is the trail around the rim and down into the mouth of the volcano. To get there you drive a spiraling road up and around the steep ascent. The drive is not for the faint of heart – nor is the mile-long hike around the rim – as the drop-offs are steep. The wind was also strong as it ripped the trail map right out of Ben’s hands and pulled it out into the open air above the plains below.

The Highway of Legends and the Spanish Peaks: As you would expect, the mountains got even bigger when we entered Colorado. We had intended to spend the night at a National Forest campsite, but after digging ourselves out of a snowdrift on the dirt road, we settled for a quiet pull-off. When we woke up in the morning, we looked up to find the snow-capped Spanish Peaks towering above us. It was a spectacular and beautiful sight to wake-up to. We spent the first hour that morning driving the breath-taking Highway of Legends as it wound its way alongside the peaks.

Great Sand Dunes National Park: Nestled in the corner of a Colorado mountain plateau are the biggest sand dunes we’ve ever seen in person (and probably in North America). As you approach, they appear to be large hills, but the closer you get, the more impressive these 800-foot tall sand dunes get … and the more out of place they seem. Through a peculiar set of conditions that require two colliding wind-systems that drop sand in a specific corner of the plateau, a barrier of mountains that collects the sand and blows it further, and a river that pulls that sand out of the mountains and back down to the plateau floor, these dunes have grown through the ages. There is a lot to do here. You can hike around the dunes to your heart’s content (you could spend days – though there is no water or anything else other than piles of sand). You can rent sand sleds, spend more than an hour hiking to the top and then slide down. In the summer, when the river beside the dunes in flowing, you can play in the water and ride an inner tube down the lazy river. Of course, you can also hike around the surrounding mountainside to check out the view. We chose to do the latter, as it was more appealing to spend hours hiking the wilderness instead of hours trudging through the sand. Maybe next time.

Bonus: Cano’s Castle, Indiana Jones home.

The Canyons

Rio Grande Del Norte: This is a sprawling national monument that covers the lands surrounding the northern Rio Grande where it enters New Mexico from Colorado. We were having trouble finding it according to the directions we found online, but, luckily, it found us. As we were approaching the town of Taos, all of a sudden there were cars pulled over at the side of the road. We immediately pulled over to see what the fuss was … and then we saw the Rio Grande Canyon. Small compared to the Grand Canyon (which we’ll see soon), but that didn’t make it any less impressive. Continuing south to Santa Fe, the highway actually descends into the canyon, following the river. It was a beautiful drive. Surprise canyons are the best.

Bandelier National Monument: Northwest of Santa Fe, Bandelier was our first (but likely not last) experience exploring the fascinating housing that Indigenous Pueblo peoples dug out of the sides of canyon walls hundreds of years ago. Along the main trail, we were able to climb into several caves in which people used to live, as well as a up into a large communal gathering space more than 100-feet above the canyon floor. We also got to see the remains of a giant pueblo – a single large structure similar in scale to a horizontal apartment building with upwards of 400 rooms. After lunch, we took a hike down the canyon in the opposite direction to a magnificent waterfall, as the canyon river accelerated its descent towards the Rio Grande which we could see in the distance.

Northern New Mexico

Taos Mesa Brewing: Another surprise discovery. Shortly after passing over the canyon (for the first time), we passed what looked like an airplane hanger, but appeared to be a brewery. After a couple of u-turns, we found the short but very bumpy road to the brewery, and stopped for some beer. They had quite a few beers on tap, and the four we tried were all delicious. Turns out, we also arrived just in time for open mic, and let me say, the host was fantastic. An apparent master of the electric guitar, he build complex arrangements by recording short pieces of music and layering them on top of each other. It was a treat to watch.

Taos: Taos is a pretty funky city. Definitely a tourist destination, but lots of cool bars and shops and is perfect for an afternoon of walking around. The challenge for cities like this, is that they’re really aimed at people looking to spend a bit of money as an expression of their vacationing spirit. Our spirits were frustrated by this, and resisted the urge. Taos is also just half-an-hour from the Taos Ski area, which is close to where we camped that night.

Santa Fe: Although some enjoy the quaint size and tourist focus of Taos, Santa Fe was more our speed. We spent a day wandering around the old city and enjoying many of the sites, including the Georgia O’Keefe museum, a delicious (though somewhat pricey) lunch at Café Pasqual’s, the San Miguel Mission (the oldest church in the contiguous USA – apparently there’s an older one in Puerto Rico), and the Collected Works Bookstore and Coffeehouse.

The Museum of Contemporary Native Arts: Our favourite museum/gallery of the trip so far. The artwork was really interesting, beautiful, and diverse. There were several exhibits on display, including one showing the work of three generations of Inuit women (grandmother, mother, and daughter).

Bonus: Elevation Coffee (because the server complimented Ben’s hat), El Gamal (not this ElGamal, but a yummy little middle-eastern restaurant in town), Blue Heron Brewing (on the highway between Taos and Santa Fe, we bought a growler with the hopes we’ll be able to re-use it eventually).

All the hits: week eight (San Antonio, Texas to Felt, Kansas)

San Antonio, Texas

Japanese Tea Garden: We spent an hour walking around the garden first thing in the morning. It was serene and quiet. There were koi fish swimming about with turtles (possibly friends), a pair of ducks (possibly lovers), and a single cat lapping up water in a corner (possibly thirsty). The garden was renamed the “Chinese Tea Garden” during World War II to prevent racist vandalism and the name is still carved over the wooden archway at the entrance. It took until 1984 for the city to revert to using the original true name.

San Antonio River Walk: The city has invested a lot in revitalizing its riverfront (on the San Antonio River) by building miles of pedestrian and bike trails, installing art projects along its length, and allowing businesses downtown to setup restaurants and bars right on the river. We enjoyed many sections of the walk (there is more than a days worth of stuff to do) and if you’re visiting San Antonio, it’s one of the main attractions.

The San Antonio Missions: Along the river there are five Spanish missions built in the 1800s. We bought a one-day pass for the city’s bike sharing service and spent a morning biking (25km) up and down the River Walk visiting them all. The most famous, The Alamo, is promoted and managed separately (outside of the National Parks Service) but is technically one of the five missions. Many of the churches at the heart of each mission are still active, and they all remain in good condition. Their size and state of restoration vary, but they’re all very beautiful and worth seeing, despite their violent historic role in attempting to convert Indigenous peoples to Christianity.

The Pearl District: Similar to the Distillery District in Toronto, the Pearl District is an industrial part of town that is being rebuilt. Home to the Southerleigh Brewery where we enjoyed a few beers and another delicious pretzel, a hotel, several cute shops, including a great coffee shop and bookstore.

Vegeria: We haven’t had trouble finding vegan food most of the time, and it’s all been good, but this vegan Mexican restaurant was simply amazing. The food was delicious and very different from most other vegan/vegetarian places because of its selection of authentic Mexican dishes. We were eager to try the entire menu.

Bonus: TBA (a chill bar with great selection), the King William Historic District (a beautiful part of town with pretty historic houses/mansions), the Blue Arts District and Halcyon (where we drank more beer).

San Antonio to Wichita, Kansas

Texas Hill Country: West of San Antonio and Austin is the Texas Hill Country. We stopped for Coffee in Barrera, the cowboy capital of America, and then stopped for a walk in Fredericksburg, an artsy hotspot in the country with lots of quaint shops and restaurants. Besides stopping in these towns, the country itself was beautiful. Lot’s of ranches with huge populations of adorable cows.

The LBJ Ranch: Lyndon B. Johnson was born and raised in Texas. While he was President, he often came home to his ranch and he eventually left it to the National Parks Service under the promise that it would continue to be a working ranch. The visit starts with a driving tour around the ranch where we visited LBJ’s childhood home (rebuilt on the property as a guesthouse while he lived there), a school he attended, the family graveyard, the main barns and fields (where the cattle roam), as well as the hanger, passenger jet, and paved runway behind his house. One we arrived at the house, we were given a tour of the main floor, including the office where he worked with senior White House staff for more than a quarter of his presidency (that’s why it’s called the Texas White House). Every room had at least one TV and telephone as he spent most of his time distracted by one of the two technological wonders / communicated important President things. The house is actually a new addition to the National Park as Johnson’s wife, Lady Bird, lived in the house until she passed away in 2007. As with most National Parks Service stops, this one was top notch.

The Fort Worth Water Gardens: If you’ve seen Logan’s Run, then you’ve seen the main attraction at the Fort Worth Water Gardens. The Gardens contain three water features, a mountain, and a stage. The feature seen in Logan’s Run is the “Active” water garden – a kind of concrete vortex with water cascading down from all sides (you can walk down to the bottom which is very cool). The other garden features are the meditation pool which is surrounded by cypress trees, and the aerating pool filled with fountains spraying water in the air.

Chickasaw National Recreation Area: We’ve been so satisfied with all of the National Parks Service offerings that now, we’ll stop at any nearby without hesitation. As we passed through Oklahoma, we stopped at Chickasaw and had a lovely walk through the forest. The park is known for it’s Bison, which we saw, and it many natural springs. They were so beautiful. On one hike, we passed two that are deeper in the woods and found spaces where we felt completely at peace. The type of space one wants to return to daily and contemplate all the most wonderful things in life. The visitors centre was also excellent as, in addition to being built over a river, it allowed us to get a much better sense of the life native to the park.

The Oklahoma National Memorial: While the terrorist attack in Oklahoma city on government workers in 1995 was an act of ugliness, the memorial is quite a beautiful and provocative space. It is built around a large but very shallow pool that produces the most interesting reflections of its surroundings.

Bonus: Cultivar Coffee (in Denton, Texas).

Wichita, Kansas (and area)

Keeper of the Plains statue and park: Located at the convergence of the Arkansas and Little Arkansas river, the large statue is a celebration of the Indigenous peoples of the area. The park below includes descriptions of various traditions and symbols of these peoples. Each night, five large fires (the Rings of Fire) are lit around the base of the statue for fifteen minutes with many locals (and on one night a couple of Canadian tourists) watching the ceremony.

Wonderful friends in Wichita: We had the privilege of staying, and having some marvelous conversations with our new friend Ed. He also introduced us to his good friends Abhi, Ara, and Nithish who had us over for a delicious Sri Lankan meal. Thank you for your hospitality! Afterwards, we all went to see the Rings of Fire ceremony.

Flint Hills Scenic Byway: Wow. People talk about how flat Kansas is, but the Flint Hills are anything but flat. It was a gorgeous drive through rolling hills of yellow grass.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve: We figured that, since we were in Kansas, we should at least see what the prairie used to look like. Historically covering 170 million acres of North America, less than 4% of it remains and the majority of that is contained within this national preserve. We opted to take a long hike up into the prairie’s bison pasture with the hopes of spotting some of the beautiful beasts. After cresting the top of a tall hill, there they were – twenty of them grazing in the distance. We turned back, satisfied and chatting only to look up and realize we had been flanked – about 70 bison were now between us and the trail back to the parking lot … and heading our way. It was a pretty spectacular sight to see, but after hoping they’d move out of the way (and making some new local Kansas friends who were also stuck) we decided to take a different, longer trail back.

Fort Larned National Historic Site: On our way out of Kansas, we stopped at Fort Larned, one of the best preserved army posts from the Santa Fe trail. While the history of the site was definitely troubling (many Indigenous peoples were murdered as American commerce and settlement moved west – patterns in American history anyone?), the site provided an incredibly detailed reconstruction of the Fort, including completely outfitted rooms for all the senior soldiers. Every room was different and full of all sorts of different pieces of furniture, clothing, and artifacts – some based on the history of the rooms actual occupants. The detail and maintenance of the site was very impressive.

Bonus: Campbell Castle (a replica of a Scottish castle that’s empty and been on the market for years), the Wichita Troll (so creepy), Reverie Coffee Shop (an amazing coffee spot where we stopped to get some work done).

All the hits: week seven (Austin edition)

We had planned to spend the weekend in Austin and then head down to San Antonio before flying back to Ottawa for my cousin’s wedding, but when we arrived in this bizarre, awesome, wonderful town, we realized we were going to need a few more days … basically a week (or forever). Every part of Austin is the hip part of Austin. Every corner you turn there is a food truck, patio, or indie coffee shop – often all three. The music scene is pretty unbelievable, rivaling New Orleans, with concert venues everywhere, including in bookstores and supermarkets. Here are only some of the amazing things we did:

Bouldin Creek Café: We ate our first meal in Austin here and it was amazing, so amazing that we decided to eat our last meal here as well. All vegetarian and very vegan-friendly, every dish we tried at this funky/punky restaurant was delicious. Lots of local beer, all-day breakfast, plus a sweet patio. Legit.

Walking along Austin’s rivers and lakes: Our host for our stay was my step-mother’s sister Sharon. Sharon owns a lovely house right on the city’s green-belt. The park runs along Barton Creek down to Lady Bird Lake (very much like a river) upon which the city is located. We were able to walk to downtown from her backyard in an hour without crossing a single street. We walked almost 25 km on two of our more adventurous days and found the experience deeply satisfying. A forest path beside a creek turns into a trail through fields and then a walkway through a park until you get to Lady Bird Lake which has major trails running along both sides. The waterfront is all in pretty great condition, wild with birds, bats, and turtles as well as people canoeing, kayaking, running and biking.

Honky Tonk night at ABGB Pizza: A local brewery, pizzeria, and music venue, Sharon took us here on our first night to experience honky tonk music, and specifically a celebration of Valentine’s Day where all the songs were macabre tunes about dead or dying sweethearts. In a corner someone was tracking the body-count.

Mayfield Park: Located in the west of town, this small park on the river is quite beautiful to walk around. The trails are somewhat adventurous requiring us to scramble up rock-faces and hop from stone to stone to cross rivers. Despite being surrounded by residential developments, we felt quite isolated. While we had heard there were wild peacocks about, we failed to spot them.

BookWoman: This small and amazing shop had an excellent selection of feminist, POC, and queer books – both fiction and non-fiction. Unfortunately, book shops like this are becoming harder and harder to find. Make sure to visit and buy something next time you’re here and support other progressive independent bookstores near you!

James Hand at the Little Longhorn Saloon: On our second night, Sharon took us a to a concert that proved extra-special. We squeezed ourselves into the small and packed Little Longhorn Saloon. Austin is a mix of old and new music venues and this was definitely one of the older ones. The evening started with a small bluegrass country band called High Plains Jamboree playing some great music, including a song dedicated to attacking former President Andrew Jackson (who appears on the $20 bill) and his role in slaughtering thousands of Indigenous peoples. At one point, they paused between songs to invite up a couple of members of the local German singing club who took the opportunity to do some yodeling. Totally cool. The main act of the night and local legend James Hand took the stage. Known in country circles well beyond Austin, James is an old-school master of the trade, echoing other greats like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. His band (a mix of old and young) was spectacular. It was a very special night.

Gospel Brunch at Threadgills: Music in Austin is everywhere, including at brunch. Gospel brunch doesn’t involve choirs so much as it involves the singing of songs inspired by the gospel. It was a bluegrass affair. While the music room was full when we arrived, lucky for us our city guide is a local celebrity and was able to get us seats at the artists’ table. The Sieker Band played that morning.

Walking South Congress: Another cool part of town, we spent an afternoon wandering up and down the street, checking out the various knick-knack shops, eating more vegan tacos, stopping at Hill Country Weavers (a great weaving and knitting shop), ending with some music at The Continental Club for some more music.

Drinks at Easy Tiger: This is a very cool bar downtown. Setup like a beer garden with long tables, it had a very european feel with an indoor area and a patio. The patio was off the street beside a canal, was complimented by ping pong tables, and had a stage for music of course. The beer and liquor selection was ridiculous (in the good way) and the giant pretzels and home made mustard were exactly what we were hoping for.

The Hope Outdoor Gallery: Condos are going up everywhere in Austin, much to the frustration of locals, but one failed development has turned into an immersive collection of street art. The many concrete walls and foundations of the abandoned condo project are now completely covered in graffiti. Unfortunately, the ground is covered in garbage and used spray paint bottles.

Barton Springs Pool: Between Sharon’s house and the downtown core sits the Barton Springs Pool. Built into the riverbed, the pool is massive and a favourite for locals. Fed by a spring, the pool is several olympic pools in length and fairly consistent in temperature. It provides clear, non-chlorinated water in which to swim and is home to some blind salamanders. Many signs remind swimmers to watch their step. It’s really a hard place to describe. The accompanying photos should give you a better idea. Yes, it was warm enough to swim and we had a great time in the pool and reading in the sun.

Gypsy jazz at C-Boys Heart and Soul: Another older club, C-Boys plays host to all kinds of music. On this particular evening, it was some gypsy jazz. It was really quite creative and fun-spirited music with some rarely used instruments (kazoo), scat, and storytelling woven in with French influences.

Counter Culture Café: This place was closed for a holiday the first time we tried, but it was worth coming back. An all-vegan café (with a patio of course), the food was amazing as were the small macaroon doughnut holes we had for desert.

An amazing host: Sharon was our guide to the city and all it had to offer. She was incredible. We new we’d like Austin when we arrived, but she took us places where we would have never thought to go and our experience was so much richer for it – it didn’t hurt that she ran into people she knew everywhere we went, all of whom had really interesting and musical stories to tell. Thank you Sharon!! ❤

Bonus: Patika Coffee Bar, Monkeywrench Books (a small anarchist bookstore and organizing space), The Vegan Nom (delicious taco food truck, but 45 minutes for a taco is just too long to wait), Austin’s moonlight towers (historic landmarks, they were built in the 1800s to light up the streets and make them safer), Waterloo Records (a large independent music store downtown), BookPeople (a massive independent bookstore downtown with a selection rivaling most big box stores), Sazon (delicious Mexican restaurant).