A Revolution in Home Automation

November 3, 2018

We recently had a home automation revolution at Meador Manor, with Google Home devices vanquishing a number of Amazon Echo toys that had built up over the past two years.

In the summer of 2016 Wendy gave me a first-generation Amazon Echo, a tall black cylinder with a speaker and microphones that functions as a voice-driven assistant. I purchased a $79/year subscription to Amazon Music and put the present to use. I use it as my wake-up alarm and, when I go to bed, to control a Philips Hue bulb in the lamp on my nightstand, play music, hear the NPR news update, and get a minimal weather forecast.

Amazon Echo Devices

I eventually bought another large Echo cylinder for the home office, and added smaller Echo Dots in different rooms. When the Echo Show was released, with its screen and camera, I bought three, putting one in the kitchen and thinking I would have one at work and give one to my parents. The screen and camera promised easy video calling, which I thought could be useful.

However, I’d previously quickly abandoned using Facetime on my iPhone with a webcam on a computer at my parents’ home as too much bother, and my folks have no interest in smart phones or tablets.  I was never able to get the Echo Shows at work and home to call each other, so I never gave my folks the third Echo Show. And while I liked having the Echo Show’s screen in the kitchen so Wendy and I could see the timers we requested, that is about all we used it for, and nothing we used it for required the use of its camera.

Alexa can be quite frustrating

Wendy found Alexa, Amazon’s voice assistant, quite frustrating. When she would ask for a particular song, it would often struggle, playing something else or getting confused. Other seemingly simple commands could quickly befuddle it. That led Wendy to ban any voice-controlled lights around the house except for the lamp on my nightstand, and we kept our older Honeywell programmable thermostat instead of replacing it with one with WiFi and home automation integrations.

I found Alexa frustrating as well. I resorted to searching for a song from my music library using the Alexa app on my iPad until I learned to always say, “Alexa, play song title from my music library” to get what I wanted. Alexa’s poor comprehension means we have never trusted using it to buy anything or put things on a shopping list, even though we buy a lot of items from smile.Amazon.com.

For my birthday a friend bought me a Roav VIVA for my car. I had hoped it would let me easily request songs without taking my hands off the wheel. But it relied on my iPhone to connect to the car’s speakers, and I wound up having to invoke or mess around with its app almost every time I started the car. It was much easier to just set my iPhone so that I could holler out, “Hey Siri” and request specific songs that way. Siri is about as bad as Alexa at figuring out which song to play, but at least it is always ready, not requiring me to mess around with a special app.

I tried using If This, Then That and other Skills with Alexa, but found none of them compelling. Granted, some could have been more interesting if we had automated more lights, appliances, and utilities at Meador Manor. But the only Skill Wendy and I wound up using was “Simon says” just so we could make Alexa say silly things. I knew we weren’t as hopeless as the folks using Amazon Echo Silver in a SNL parody, but we were not getting much value out of our many Echo devices.

Amazon then decided to terminate my ability to add to my own music library in their service, limiting me to what I already uploaded and what they could stream. That mortal blow led me to order in July 2018, two years after getting my first Echo, a Google Home Mini, which is a competitor for the Amazon Echo Dot.

The Google Home Mini vs. the Amazon Echo Dot

My expectations were so low that it took me months to bother to plug in the Google device. Not caring for its default voice, I configured it to speak in a male British accent. (Since Apple changed the original voice of Siri, losing Susan Bennett’s intonations, I’ve turned it into a male Aussie.)

Since I was already paying $9.99/month for Google Play Music to get the bundled ad-free YouTube Red service, which has now morphed into YouTube Premium, it can stream music like the Echo devices, and Google still lets me upload my own music library.

It was easy to get it to work with my Philips Hue bulb, and I eventually had Wendy try it out. She was delighted with it, as it was far more accurate than Alexa at playing the songs she wanted. So I bought another Google Home Mini for her bathroom and then the larger Google Home, with its improved speaker and microphones, for our home office.

Her happiness with the Google voice assistant led me to finally break out a Wemo Switch Smart Plug I’d received as a birthday present 18 months earlier. I plugged Wendy’s coffee maker into it, programming it to turn on automatically each weekday morning as well as respond to her verbal commands to the Google Home devices. That sealed the deal for her.

Our Google Home devices

When the Google Home Hub came out, with its small screen and no camera, it replaced the Amazon Echo Show in the kitchen. It does everything we need, and its smaller size suits our galley kitchen better than the bulkier Amazon unit. Plus I know Wendy is glad it has no camera someone could hack into.

Sometimes Wendy and I want to share YouTube clips with each other on the big OLED television in the living room. I used to struggle with the remote controls to get AirPlay working via the Apple TV so we could stream videos from one or both of our Apple iPads. So I plugged a 2nd-generation Google Chromecast I found in the junk drawer (yes, there is a 1st-generation unit still in there) into the back of the TV, which thankfully supports HDMI-CEC so that the Chromecast can turn the TV on and off, which in turn activates our receiver for our surround sound speakers.

I was delighted that we could tell the Google Home Hub to turn on the TV and command it to play various YouTube videos. So we didn’t have to yell at the Hub in the kitchen from the couch, I bought another Google Home Mini and placed it on the TV stand. Now we can look at the title of the YouTube clip on one of our iPads and command the Google Home Mini to turn on the TV and play the clip.

We often have to help the Chromecast figure out which clip we want

It does struggle more with playing the correct YouTube video than playing the correct song from the streaming music service, but thankfully shows thumbnails of likely matches on the screen and asks us to say the number of the video clip we actually want to view. Overall, it beats fussing with the Apple TV and Airplay. I haven’t tried watching any movies with it yet, so I don’t know if we’ll be lured away from our current reliance on the TV’s built-in Amazon app or the Apple TV for renting and streaming movies.

I cancelled my Amazon Music subscription this week, and have retired all of the Amazon Echo devices except for the original gift on my nightstand. But there’s a Google Home Mini next to it. If I could only set the alarm on it to my liking, our last Echo would fade away. ¡Viva la revolución!

 

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Time for a break

October 18-20, 2018

Mid-October’s Fall Break in Oklahoma doesn’t coincide with our autumn colors, which don’t peak until late October and November. But it is still well-timed for us school folks, as we are ready for a respite after completing a quarter of a new academic year. Supporting and troubleshooting new technology services and helping with core curricular assessments has kept me scrambling, while Wendy and her Student Technology Support Team have ramped up to help dozens of high school students each day with their various Chromebook issues.

Home Improvements

On the home front, we had to shift most of our belongings earlier this month for new carpet to be installed. Meador Manor still featured its original 1981 salmon-colored saxony carpet. I didn’t have the money to replace it when I bought the house in 1994, and later put up with its traffic patterns, worn out pad, and even some torn seams to avoid the expense and disruption of replacing it. This fall’s hard-earned pay raise finally prompted me to take Wendy shopping for something better. We opted for a busy frieze carpet that disguises dirt and feels luxurious. Sooner Carpet installed Dreamweaver Stratosphere Leather carpet with new padding, and we are delighted.

Now that we finally have carpet worth saving, we have invested in protective mats for our rolling chairs, put down a tarpaulin and moving blanket to protect it in Wendy’s painting area, and moved our shoe rack to encourage us to change them when entering and thus avoid traipsing in dirt.

The consequent shifting of items and furnishings led us to purge some things we no longer used. I still read a book or two each month, but mostly using the Kindle app on my iPad or my Kindle Voyage. So after selling off 200 books in 2010 and donating over 700 to the public library in 2016, I boxed up even more of my books for donation. I’m now down to about 200 books on my shelves, having shed about 85% of my original collection.

Other home improvements this month include a new headboard, lamps, and nightstand for the guest room and installing an exhaust fan in the office window for Wendy to use when she is applying resin to protect her paintings.

With work and home improvements dominating our days of late, we planned our break to emphasize our hobbies.

Monarchs in Wichita

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I took off Thursday in more ways than one since I took a vacation day and headed out to Wichita, Kansas while Wendy relaxed and painted at home. I was drawn there to the Botanica community gardens, which were started in 1987 by the Wichita Area Garden Council and the City of Wichita. They have grown to almost 18 acres and feature a butterfly garden, so migrating Monarchs were feasting there as part of their annual migration to central Mexico.

Monarch feeding in Botanica

I got various shots of them feeding on asters and resting amongst the mums.

Monarch in the mums

I enjoyed seeing a cute little ladybug and of course took some shots of roses for Wendy, including a bud and bloom of Fired Up.

Fired Up rose

Lake Leatherwood

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Wendy loves painting at home, but also was ready to get away. I knew she would enjoy hunting in the Ozarks for rocks with crystals, so we headed there for a short getaway.

It rained steadily throughout the drive eastward, so we stopped to see the exhibit Art for a New Understanding: Native Voices, 1950s to Now at Crystal Bridges in Bentonville. We both liked the vivid colors of The Storyteller: The Artist and His Grandfather by Norval Morrisseau, in which a Mayan influence was evident. His grandfather, the figure on the left, was a member of the Mideiwiwin Society who taught Norval traditional Anishinaabe religious doctrines and practices.

The Storyteller: The Artist and His Grandfather by Norval Morrisseau

The break wasn’t long enough nor had I planned ahead sufficiently to book a cabin at our preferred resort of Sugar Ridge at Beaver Lake. So I booked us for one night at a nearby hotel. The view was the best thing about that place, enough said.

Beaver Lake view

But at least it put us close to Eureka Springs’ Lake Leatherwood, where we could hike to a stream and Wendy could hunt for rocks while I took some shots by the dam.

The weather cooperated by turning bright and sunny on Saturday. After a nice breakfast at the Sweet-n-Savory Cafe, we drove over to Lake Leatherwood and hiked up the Beacham Trail. While Wendy hunted rocks, I ventured over to the dam and down to its base.  I got shots of the flowing water and sunlight streaming through leaves which had begun to show traces of fall color.

Lake Leatherwood Dam

The recent rain meant West Leatherwood Creek was flowing well. Folks were out on the water in paddleboats and canoes, and I always enjoy the powerful perspective found at either end of the linear dam.

Perspective

Luna moth caterpillar

Bugs were minimal this time of year, and butterflies were enjoying wild asters. As we were making our way back to the car along the Fuller and Fishing Trails, a large caterpillar inched across our path. Someday it will become a Luna moth.

It was great to be back on the trails after months of avoiding them in prolonged summer heat. We needed the break and now can make it through the next four weeks of work until we get a week away for Thanksgiving.

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A Historical Trivia Challenge


September 23, 2018

Bartlesville is the seat of Washington County in northeast Oklahoma. The county is a north-south strip that is only about 10 miles wide and 40 miles long. The smallest county in the state, it lies along the eastern border of Osage County, the state’s largest. Named after George Washington, the county was formed at statehood in 1907 on land that had once been controlled by the Caddo, served as buffalo-hunting grounds for the Osage from 1760-1825, and then was part of the new Cherokee Nation after their forced relocation from Georgia.

Washington County is the smallest in Oklahoma

The first verified school in the county opened in 1874 at Silver Lake, one of the few natural lakes in Oklahoma, just south of modern-day Bartlesville, back when it was still Indian Territory. These days, the county is dominated by four school districts which serve 8,300 students. So how many one-room schools do you think operated in the county from 1874 through the closing of the last ones by the 1950s?

That was the first of a series of trivia questions I posed earlier this month when I was asked to share some history of the rural schools with the Washington County Retired Educators Association. Their request was prompted by my presentation to them a year earlier on the history of the Bartlesville schools.

School history can be a bit dull, even to an audience of retired educators! So my preparation including hunting for unusual things to highlight. The Bartlesville Area History Museum has a great book called Over a Century of Schools in Washington County: Gone But Not ForgottenThat was extremely helpful, but I also consulted the vertical files in the History Room at the Bartlesville Public Library.

Among the tales I accumulated were:

  • In 1912 a district saw its expensive school, which was less than two years old, burn up with the fire department forlornly looking on, unable to spray a drop of water on it.
  • The two largest oil tank farms in the world once enabled two county districts to build four rather fine school buildings, only one of which is still standing a century later. One of those districts had a fellow build the first school buses in the state, but they were all horse-drawn.
  • A tornado flattened one school in the 1930s while its two teachers and 70 schoolchildren sheltered in a ditch across the road.

That spiced things up, and I threw in additional trivia questions designed to confound my audience. If I have successfully whetted your appetite, dig in with my Google Slides presentation:

 

You can find much more information on Washington County at my long-standing history site of BartlesvilleHistory.org.

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Arid Adventure, Part 5: Moab

TRIP DATES: June 13-15, 2018 | Slideshow | Photo Album

After completing our tour of Antelope Canyon and having lunch in Page, Arizona, we had a five-hour drive to reach our trip’s penultimate hotel in Moab, Utah. Although Moab is only 155 miles northeast of Page, and they both lie along the Colorado River, the highway route is 270 miles. One has to travel east for hours across the arid landscape of the Navajo Reservation before turning north. We turned off at Kaibito for a restroom break, but I allowed our TomTom GPS to guide us along a bumpy dirt road to return to the highway, something Wendy did not appreciate. She declared a moratorium on unpaved back roads for the remainder of the trip.

Buttes near Monument Valley

We passed sandstone buttes that reminded us we were passing within a dozen miles of Monument Valley, made famous in the westerns of John Ford. I’d originally planned to divert to see it, but couldn’t make that work out given the availability and timing of our slot canyon tour. So we only admired small buttes in passing as we journeyed to Moab.

Wilson Arch

We were both weary and hungry by the time we reached Wilson Arch, 24 miles south of Moab. It spans 91 feet and rises 46 feet above the desert floor and was the largest arch we saw on the trip, having decided to forgo Arches National Park just north of Moab to concentrate on other less popular attractions. Soon we were driving northwest up Spanish Valley towards Moab’s downtown at its far end.

Arriving late, we pulled into a Wendy’s for dinner. While driving back through town to the Best Western Plus Canyonlands Inn, we passed a truck that someone had converted into a hiking boot. In addition to hiking and mountain biking, the area also offers kayaking and boating along the Colorado River and four-wheeling across the desert mesas.

The small town’s catering to tourists comes after a uranium mining boom that began in the 1950s and lasted until the 1980s. The Christian Bible tells of Moab, lands located east of the Dead Sea. However, early residents of the Utah town were uncomfortable with the name, as the Bible claims the Moabites descended from a titular ancestor conceived when Lot’s eldest daughter, sheltering with him and her sister in a cave after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, got him drunk and they incestuously conceived a son. Much earlier in its history, there were petitions to change Moab’s name, but those failed.

The next day we enjoyed lunch at Sweet Cravings Bakery & Bistro, and would return for lunch the following day as well. Their paninis were fresh and delicious. I had them put turkey and swiss with mayo and lettuce on sourdough, while Wendy ordered their Adventure Inn panini, substituting cranberry sauce for the mayo and adding jalapeño jelly and cream cheese.

After lunch we headed north past the Colorado River and turned west on Highway 313 towards Dead Horse Point. I’d read online that the free state park offered spectacular views of the Colorado and surrounding canyons and was a closer and free alternative to Canyonlands National Park.

Dead Horse Point with its natural corral

The name was a bit offputting, arising from a legend that the point of the mesa high above the Colorado was once used as a corral for wild mustangs. Cowboys rounded them up, herded them across a narrow neck of land, and then fenced that off with branches and brush. Horses were selected from the herd corralled by the steep cliffs falling off on each side. The sad part of the legend is that the remaining horses were left to die of thirst, trapped on the point 2,000 feet above the Colorado.

Mesas

Along the way, we paused to take in the panoramic view of Big Mesa to the north. Two smaller mesas were visible to the northeast.

The views from the Rim Trail as we approached the visitor center were impressive, with rugged eroded canyons in the foreground and background mountains.

Approaching Dead Horse Point Visitor Center

Bright blue colors visible on the distant floor in the panoramic shot were not the Colorado River, which is quite green, but instead potash evaporation ponds lined with vinyl and partially filled with tinted water. Potash is potassium chloride and used in plant fertilizer. A mine pumps water down into the Paradox Formation to dissolve the potassium chloride salt. The water is then pumped up into the ponds to evaporate, leaving behind the salt to be harvested by twenty-ton scrapers.

At the park’s visitor center, we took in the sweeping view to the east. The Colorado River meandered by 2,000 feet below. We enjoyed shopping at the gift shop, which was well stocked with interesting items. It was a short drive south from there to the point itself, where we passed through an example corral fence at the neck.

Panorama at Dead Horse Point

Our trip selfie

There was an overlook of a gooseneck bend in the Colorado at the point, with a large structure offering welcome shade. We had come prepared for the harsh ultraviolet assault and posed for a selfie in our wide-brimmed hats. Then we took in the view of the basin to the west. Thousands of feet below we could spot rafts cruising on the Colorado.

West basin view from Dead Horse Point

That evening we drove to the south end of Moab and circled back along its east side, climbing the valley wall toward the sand flats for panoramic views to the south towards the red cliffs of the valley’s opposite wall and the peaks of the La Sal mountains 20 miles to the southeast.

La Sal peaks in the distance

The terrain was rough and varied as we climbed towards the sand flats. Enthused by the views in the golden hour of the evening, we decided to drive north to the Colorado River and drive east along Highway 128 along its south bank.

Driving along the Colorado east of Moab

Evening sun strikes the cliffs above the Colorado

Sheer vertical cliffs, stained with desert varnish, rose to 900 feet above river as we meandered 15 miles upstream to the northeast.  It was another stunningly beautiful scenic drive in Utah and a wonderful end to the day.

The next day we packed up for the return to Salt Lake City. We stopped in at Sweet Cravings again for lunch, and Wendy enjoyed shopping at Lin Ottinger’s Rock Shop. Then we drove northwest for 4.5 hours to the airport in Salt Lake. We saw rain falling across the landscape and odd yellow gaps in the storm clouds.

Big clouds, but we got little rain

Eventually we were headed north on I-15, managing to hit rush hour traffic as we drove north along the Wasatch Range. Trixie the TomTom GPS app guided us along, warning us about impending traffic jams and how long it would take us to clear them. It steered us onto the I-215 beltway to finally arrive, road and traffic weary, at a Courtyard by Marriott. We checked in and walked over to Roberts Restaurant for a delicious dinner. Wendy enjoyed some salmon, while I feasted on an excellent steak.

The next morning we checked our Ford Fusion in at the airport and flew back to Tulsa. After so many days in the arid high desert, we both were struck by how green the landscape appeared as we descended. We were back in Green Country and glad to be home.

I suspect that we will aim for a cooler area of the country for our June 2019 getaway. But we enjoyed some truly spectacular scenery looping across the high deserts of Utah and far northern Arizona on our arid adventure.

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< Arid Adventure, Part 4: Antelope Slot Canyon

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Arid Adventure, Part 4: Antelope Slot Canyon

TRIP DATES: June 13, 2018 | Slideshow | Photo Album

The anchor for our trip was one of the shortest, yet most beautiful, hikes we will ever enjoy: a walk through the Upper Antelope Slot Canyon. Its popularity and location in the Navajo reservation require one take a guided tour with a licensed operator. Months ahead of time I opted to book with the company founded by the late Ray Tsosie. I knew we would prefer a mid-day tour so that hopefully sun rays would penetrate into the narrow canyon for memorable photographs.

The short slot canyon carved by Antelope Creek

At 10 a.m. we dutifully showed up at the tour store, a converted gas station in downtown Page. We checked in and waited to board one of the old pickups outfitted with passenger benches in its bed for the ride from downtown Page. Our guide was Leonard Nez, a tall Navajo with a dry wit. He took our tickets as we boarded with a group of German tourists and told us to hang on.

He meant it. We cruised the 4.5 miles to turn off Highway 98 at a wide and dry section of Antelope Creek’s bed. Then we had a very bouncy and fun three-mile ride along the sandy creek bed to where the creek cut a 500-foot long narrow slot the Navajo call Tsé bighánílíní, which means ‘the place where water runs through rocks’. When we pulled up at the entrance to the canyon, Leonard got out, and with black humor, silently pointed and counted his jolted passengers to see if anyone had fallen out along the way.

Entrance to the upper canyon

Rainwater, especially during monsoon season from mid-June to late September, collects in the Antelope Creek basin above the slot canyon sections. Its velocity and sand load increase as it rushes into the narrow slots, eroding passageways. Another similar short section of canyon farther downstream, the Lower Antelope Slot Canyon, can also be toured. That part is longer than the Upper Canyon, and narrower in spots, with some uneven footing and has five flights of stairs, while the Upper Canyon is a smooth and level walk with more frequent sunbeams.

Leonard ensured we had no packs. Some folks in the past spread cremation ashes in the canyon, requiring that it be closed so a medicine man could bless and cleanse it. Flash flooding also closes the canyon, of course, and a 36-hour flood in 2006 kept the Lower Canyon closed for months; 11 tourists died there in 1997.

Our visit, however, was sunny and hot with no rain. It was a relief to enter the canyon’s shadows, with Leonard rapidly taking and setting each of our cameras for better shots.

Sandstone walls sculpted by floods and sand

The beautiful smoothed sandstone walls rose high above our group, and Leonard began stopping and using a laser pointer to help us imagine bears, famous profiles and faces, and other animals from the undulating shapes and projections. We passed a tree limb that had been stranded high up on the walls for many years after it was deposited by a flood.

Leonard enjoyed taking clever shots for us, such as the eye and the wave, and threw sand high into the air when we encountered a sunbeam, making its track through the air visible.

Sunbeam through the slot

Expertly herding us along, giving directions and guidance in various languages, Leonard led us through the sinuous passage. When needed, he redirected inconsiderate tourists who got lost in their own little world. The colors shifted with the angle of the rays and the width of the slot, until we reached the far end of the twisting passage.

Southeast exit

There we relaxed before reversing our path. As some oblivious Asian women chattered away, Leonard sat and played the triple flute for us, prompting a crow overhead to caw loudly.

Leonard Playing the Triple Flute

On the rapid return through the canyon to the truck, I took Leonard’s advice to silently and discreetly duck behind one of the photography tour groups so I could get a nice shot of one of the light shafts.

A parting shot

Our group of Germans with a couple of Okies boarded the truck to bounce our happy way back to Page. This brief but memorable experience was Wendy’s favorite part of our trip.

We returned to Gone West for lunch before heading out on a 4.5 hour 270 mile journey east and north to Moab, Utah where we would visit Dead Horse Point and drive along a beautiful stretch of the Colorado River.

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Arid Adventure, Part 5: Moab >

< Arid Adventure, Part 3: Down the Grand Staircase to Lake Powell

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Arid Adventure, Part 3: Down the Grand Staircase to Lake Powell

TRIP DATES: June 11-12, 2018 | Slideshow | Photo Album

The highlight of our trip would come at the lowest point in our looping journey: a walk through the Antelope Slot Canyon near Page, Arizona. So we needed to make our way south out of Utah down to the Glen Canyon Dam which impounds Lake Powell. The terrain meant we would have to drive a long arc west, south, and then back east.

Scenic Highway 12 continued to impress as we traveled west toward Bryce Canyon. A few small towns dot the arid Bryce valley. After we found that Foster’s Family Restaurant in Bryce was now the UpTop Steakhouse and only open in the evenings, we backtracked to Tropic for lunch at Rustler’s Restaurant.

Tropic was named by pioneers seeking to promote it as a more temperate location than its competitors. In the late 1880s, the Mormon farmers in the area diverted water from the East Fork of the Sevier River into the often-dry Paria River drainage to irrigate their fields. They dug, mostly by hand, a 15-mile ditch which still runs today. We saw the Sevier River’s water flowing through the Tropic Ditch near the Mossy Cave Trail at the north end of Bryce Canyon.

Tropic Ditch

The surrounding hillsides had the characteristic look of the famous eroded amphitheaters of Bryce Canyon National Park a few miles to the southwest, which nature carved out of the pink Claron limestone of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. Unlike the Grand Canyon, Bryce was not carved by flowing water, but instead by frost-wedging and chemical weathering.

Claron limestone erosion

For 200 days a year the temperature cycles above and below freezing in that area of Utah. During the day, melt water seeps into fractures only to freeze at night, expanding by 9%. The ice exerts a tremendous pressure of 2,000-20,000 pounds per square inch. Over time this “frost-wedging” shatters and pries rock apart. In addition, rain water, which is naturally acidic, slowly dissolves the limestone, rounding off edges and washing away debris. This creates fins of rock jutting out from the cliffsides, which then erode into free-standing hoodoos.

Red Canyon hoodoos

Road Arch at Red Canyon

We shopped for trinkets in Bryce and then continued our journey west. A dozen miles across the northern end of Bryce Canyon, Highway 12 runs through Red Canyon, the western edge of the valley, with its own erosion of the Claron limestone. The road passes through two manmade arches in the rock, which were fun to drive through.

Too soon we left Highway 12, and the rest of the drive to Page was uneventful. We followed highway 89 down the Grand Staircase, a term Clarence Dutton coined for the steady descent, layer by layer, through the sedimentary rock formations from Bryce Canyon south to the Grand Canyon. The pink cliffs of Bryce give way to grey, then white, and eventually the Vermilion Cliffs we had driven by the previous summer, ending in the chocolate cliffs that form the top layer of the Grand Canyon.

The high desert we drove through heading back east in far southern Utah towards Lake Powell was quite inhospitable. It became even more desolate as we dipped south into Arizona. It would never occur to one to stop and stay in Page, Arizona were it not for the formidable Glen Canyon Dam and associated natural and man-made wonders.

High desert of southern Utah

The 710-foot high dam was built by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation from 1956 to 1966 and has always been controversial. Edward Abbey wanted to wreck it in The Monkey Wrench Gang, and Marc Reisner delineated its downsides in his superb history Cadillac Desert. The level of Lake Powell fluctuates considerably, but it has never recovered from a drought in the first years of the 21st century. While its full capacity ranks it as the second-largest man-made reservoir in our country, global warming and the increasing demands on the Colorado River mean it could eventually become a “dead pool” that can no longer generate hydroelectric power.

Lakes Mead and Powell have not recovered from the drought of 2000-2005

We were glad to arrive at the Days Inn in Page, where we had a nice dinner at the Gone West restaurant. The next morning we drove to the Wahweap Marina for an Antelope Canyon boat cruise. Wahweap is a Paiute word meaning “bitter water” and dates back to when the mineral-laden trickles of water in the area were unattractive. Now all that and much of Glen Canyon is subsumed under the cool clear waters of the lake.

There was quite a crowd in the marina waiting to board the boat, hiding from the brutal sunlight outside. We sat on the upper deck by a retired couple from New Jersey. They were fun to visit with and in the middle of their own adventure out west with some other retirees. I wore my Tilley hat, of course, but made the mistake of wearing shorts and forgetting to protect my legs with sunscreen. The heat and sunlight were intense, leaving me with an itchy sunburn by the end of the 90-minute cruise.

Castle Rock

Our boat took us past the dam and Castle Rock. All around us were the red cliffs of the uppermost layers of Glen Canyon and the “bathtub ring” of mineral deposits from back when the lake was actually full decades ago.

Lake Powell’s bathtub ring, with walkers for scale

We zoomed by the cliffs and eventually headed up Antelope Canyon. Our massive vessel cruised up the winding canyon, following a much smaller boat. I was surprised at how far we could make it up the winding and narrowing canyon formed by Antelope Creek.

Our course up Antelope Canyon

Desert varnish stained the walls of the canyon, reminding me of the stains at Echo Amphitheater near Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. This natural patina is primarily clay particles with iron and manganese oxides.

Desert varnish in Antelope Canyon

The weathering in some places exposed the layers of sedimentary rock, created hoodoos, and in spots yielded bright orange sand. There were quite a few houseboats on the lake, although for me the intense heat and sunlight, with little vegetation, left me with little desire to linger.

Sedimentary rock layers

We returned to the marina and struggled to cool off inside the resort before heading back to Page. That afternoon we laundered clothes, and I bought some aloe vera gel for my sunburned legs. The next day we would revisit Antelope Canyon via a guided walking tour through its upper slot canyon.

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Arid Adventure, Part 4: Antelope Slot Canyon >

< Arid Adventure, Part 2: Escalante

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Arid Adventure, Part 2: Escalante

TRIP DATES: June 9-11, 2018 | Slideshow | Photo Album

The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a rugged region of canyons, arches, plateaus and cliffs. Established in 1996, it was recently reduced and broken apart into three separate monuments. We visited the northeast part of the region,  spending a day driving south from Salt Lake City to a casita west of the small town of Escalante. We stopped briefly along the way to visit the northern tip of Capitol Reef National Park and then enjoyed the amazing scenery along Highway 12 from there south and west to Escalante.

Our route from Salt Lake City

Capitol Dome at Capitol Reef National Park

A reef sounds rather out of place in this dry desert land, but locally it refers to a rocky barrier to land travel just as ocean reefs can bar travel on the sea. The national park is a thin strip of land running north-south which encompasses the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile long monocline which is an S-shaped warp in the rocks likely formed as continental plates collided to create the Rocky Mountains. Pools in the eroded rocks capture rainwater, and a colorful section near the Fremont River is called Capitol Reef because of white sandstone dome formations that resemble the domes placed upon many capitol buildings.

Capitol Reef viewed from the International Space Station

We didn’t have time to explore or hike in the park, but did drive over to its northern entrance to take in Panorama Point and the Goosenecks Overlook. Highway 24 runs along the base of the stacked red layers in the Mummy Cliffs. A side road took us to a parking area, with a short slickrock trail leading up a rise for the views. Slickrock is smooth, weathered sandstone which sheds water instantly and can be dangerous to hikers as well as horses wearing iron shoes, but is fine for bikes and jeeps. In this area, the sandstone was either slickrock or heavily pockmarked.

Highway 24 around the Mummy Cliffs

Wendy patiently waited while I scampered about taking in the vistas atop the slabs and ridges of sandstone. Then we drove to the Goosenecks Overlook, where she shied away from the quite windy overlooks 800 feet above Sulphur Creek. Over the past six million years the creek has cut its winding way deep into the rock.

Sulphur Creek has cut through the Moenkopi Formation of mud and sand from shallow seas and floodplains of 245 million years ago, on down through the Kaibab Limestone deposited in shallow seas 270 million years ago and which is the top layer of the Grand Canyon 160 miles to the south. The creek has further penetrated to the White Rim Sandstone formed from coastal sand dunes 280 million years ago. This carved layer cake of deposition is quite beautiful, but we were both drying out in the hot dessicating wind.

Sulphur Creek at the Goosenecks

So we were glad to hop back into our Ford Fusion for the drive along Highway 12 towards Escalante. We found relief from the heat as we drove from the desert up into the forests of Boulder Mountain, climbing from 6,300 feet to over 9,000 feet through large stands of aspen, pine, spruce, and fir. The Larb Hollow Overlook provided a view of the Henry Mountains, the last mountain range to be added to the map of the United States back in 1872. 350 bison roam freely there, one of only three free-roaming and genetically purebred herds left on our public lands. We could see the Lower Bowns Reservoir in the distance as well as jutting rock formations.

Larb Hollow Overlook

The road descended from the mountain to the town of Boulder, and then ran along the Hogback, a razorback ridge of slickrock high above Calf Creek to the west and Boulder Creek to the east. We stopped after that impressive if somewhat harrowing drive to view Calf Creek’s canyon.

Calf Creek Canyon

We crossed the Escalante River, taking a panorama from the south canyon wall, looking down upon a yurt perched on a ledge far below.

Escalante River Canyon

It was late by the time we passed through Escalante and reached Slot Canyons Inn, where I had rented the Moonrise Casita while a wedding party had commandeered the remainder of the inn. We were truly remote, with no reliable internet or cell service. That remoteness frustrated our news routines, but did provide dark skies which we could view from the entry deck’s recliners. Wendy treasures privacy and fashioned a blind of paper towels for one high window. I thought she was being a bit paranoid until later in our stay when a small drone buzzed about overhead. Those darn paparazzi follow us everywhere! 🙂

Moonrise Casita

Longhorn cattle, Holsteins, horses, and even a bighorn sheep grazed in the small pastures around the casita. At night Wendy would tuck herself in a space under one of the gables for her nightly coffee while reading the latest book by David Sedaris. By day I sat up in the bed or reclined out on the balcony to read Pride and Prejudice, my follow-up to reading Jane Austen’s Emma six summers back. It was disconcerting to look up from my book and be transported from a search for husbands for Mr. Bennet’s daughters in Regency England to a sunny Utah pasture.

Our big outing from Escalante was an incredibly bumpy ride 12 miles along the washboard Hole in the Rock road to the Devil’s Garden. It is a collection of hoodoos and arches in the Entrada Sandstone. The hoodoos form at the intersection of the Cannonville and Gunsight Butte members of the formation. The upper Cannonville layer has more clay and silt, so it erodes away, leaving pillars of the Gunsight Butte layer.

Granger and some hoodoos

Erosion changes ridges into standalone hoodoos, which are taller than a man. One group reminded me of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, standing high on the rocks over a dry gully.

Hoodoos

There were a few other visitors wandering amidst the rocks and admiring the thin and thick arches. No doubt we were all glad to be afoot after enduring the bone-rattling ride to get there.

Arch at the Devil’s Garden

Hole in the Rock above Lake Powell

We were not tempted to continue down Hole in the Rock Road to its canyons, instead struggling back north along the 12 miles of rough road to Escalante. Along the way I pondered how the road gets even rougher if you turn south for the 50-mile journey that ends in the Hole in the Rock itself at Lake Powell.

In 1880, an expedition of Mormons trying to settle in southeastern Utah widened that narrow crack in the canyon rim above the Colorado River to reach a ford. The drop to the river was nearly 2000 feet with an average grade of 25 degrees, although some places were as steep as 45 degrees.

Construction of this passageway was very difficult, plagued by lack of wood, forage for cattle, bitter cold, and diminishing food supplies. Blasting powder and picks were used to widen and/or fill various sections of the crevice. At the lower part of the Hole, a road was constructed on the side of a sheer cliff wall. Although a three-foot shelf had already existed, an extension to the shelf was formed by driving two-foot stakes into the rock and piling vegetation and rocks on top. This portion of the trail was nicknamed “Uncle Ben’s Dugway” in honor of its engineer, Benjamin Perkins. After six weeks of picking, chiseling, drilling, blasting, and digging, the Hole-in-the-Rock road had been completed. Even after they finally crossed the Colorado, the pioneers had another 120 miles of arduous travel before they reached Bluff, Utah.

Hikers at Hole in the Rock above Lake Powell

One-third of the Hole in the Rock slit now lies beneath the waters of Lake Powell. The Hole was only used for a year before the settlers shifted the route a few miles over to the better Hall’s Crossing. The incredibly rough “modern” Hole in the Rock Road to the area is one of the most traveled in the monument, but is still hellish despite being graded 20 or more times each tourist season.

The terrain in this region is unforgiving. Later in the week Wendy and I would take the modern route 191 through Bluff as we traveled from Page, Arizona to Moab, Utah. The modern roads make long sweeping arcs to avoid the rough mesas and canyons on either side of the Colorado River.

Upon returning to Escalante, we purchased the most normal food we could find at a hipster grocery. We had already sampled the two major restaurants in town. We had a kindly server at the Circle D while the best thing about Boots Cafe was its large taxidermied bear.

This was the most remote area we visited during our vacation. The lack of services and sparse population allowed me to fully relax, knowing that I was truly away from work. Both Wendy and I preferred to avoid the crowds by shunning the pay areas of the multiple national parks along our route.

The next phase of our trip would take us past Bryce Canyon down to Lake Powell in Arizona, where we would take a sunny boat tour and a shaded guided walk through a picturesque slot canyon.

Slideshow | Photo Album

Arid Adventure Part 3: Down the Grand Staircase to Lake Powell >

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