A Grand Adventure, Day 7: El Morro & The Ice Cave


On Day 7 of our Grand Adventure we traveled to Santa Fe with long stops to hike at El Morro and to explore the Bandera volcano and its ice cave.

After the commencement ceremony for the Class of 2017, I was approached by Barbara Davidson, who taught at Bartlesville High for many years and now is a valued substitute teacher. Knowing we were headed to the Grand Canyon, she recommended we visit the Land of Fire & Ice, a volcano and ice cave in New Mexico. So in our hotel room in Gallup I checked the route to the attraction and noticed that if we drove south on Highway 602 out of Gallup into the Zuni Reservation, we could divert east on 53 to visit the El Morro National Monument before we got to the volcano. I’d never heard of El Morro, but noted it had a hiking trail, something which appealed to me greatly. So after breakfast at the hotel I led our two-car caravan there.

Day 7 Trip Map

El Morro

El Morro is Spanish for “the headland” and denotes a cuesta (a long rock formation that slopes gently upward and then drops off abruptly) situated along a main east-west trail in what is now west central New Mexico. It is known for having over 2,000 inscriptions along its base made over the centuries by Native Americans, Spanish colonials, and Americans. I wonder how long it takes for graffiti to transform from vandalism into historical artifacts?

El Morro

The Zuni indians have lived in the area for 3,000-4,000 years. Back in 1275 they established the Atsinna pueblo atop El Morro. Atsinna means “place of writings on the rock”, so there were already petroglyphs along the steep outer walls of the cuesta by then. For about 75 years between 1,000 and 1,500 people lived atop the cuesta before the settlement was abandoned.

The Most Famous Inscription

Onate’s inscription

The first European to carve his name on the rock was Don Juan de Oñate in 1605, writing, “There passed this way the Adelantado (conqueror) Don Juan de Oñate from the discovering of the South Sea on the 16th of April 1605.” He had led several expeditions across the southwest, confirming that the region we now know as New Mexico lacked precious metals but could sustain colonists willing to work the land. No doubt he stopped at El Morro because of the pool of water which collects at its base.

You may wonder about the color of the inscription. In the 1920s the first superintendent of the monument went over some of the inscriptions with a hard pencil in an attempt to preserve them, since the soft sandstone deteriorates over time. These days the conservation efforts are less intrusive.

Oñate’s stop at El Morro was six years after he had ordered the Acoma pueblo destroyed in retaliation for the deaths of a party of 12 Spanish soldiers. Hundreds of natives, including women and children, perished in the massacre, and it wasn’t long after visiting El Morro that he was finally held accountable. In 1606 he was recalled to Mexico City as he was laying out the plan for Santa Fe. Oñate was tried and convicted for his cruelty towards the natives and was banished from New Mexico and Mexico City. He eventually returned to Spain to live out the remainder of his life, dying there in 1626 at age 76.

The Inscription Trail

We arrived at the monument around 11:30. After using the facilities and exploring the gift shop, we registered at the desk for the hike, receiving a laminated book on the carvings to be found all around the headland.

Our demanding work schedules led to Wendy and I only going on a few hikes since November 2016. I blame that for my forgetting to activate my iPhone’s MotionX GPS tracking app for the hike. Later I reconstructed the hike by hand in Google Earth.

El Morro Trail Track

Some ladies ahead of us on the paved trail made much of the possibility of sunning snakes, but we never saw any. The vertical cliffs above us had interesting darker patches hanging onto the cliff face.

Pool at El Morro

We soon reached the pool at the base of the headland, filled with water from runoff and snowmelt. Originally there was a basin hollowed out by water cascading from above. The first caretaker of the monument deepened and dammed the pool in the 1920s. A rockfall destroyed that dam in 1942, and a new one was constructed.

Some of the inscriptions overlapped each other, with a mix of petroglyphs and modern writing. A particularly beautiful one was by E. Pen Long, a member of the U.S. Army from Baltimore who was a member of the Beale caravan of 1857-1859. Reportedly he had the use of tools for carving gravestones, allowing him to sculpt fine details in the soft sandstone. Lt. Edward F. Beale′s group was experimenting with using camels as Army animals in the southwest. Beale’s group included 25 packs camels, part of the Camel Corps, and he was quite impressed by their endurance and packing abilities. The Civil War interfered with the project, and it was abandoned. Unfortunately that didn’t prevent me from seeing the regrettable comedy film based on this project, Hawmps!, back in 1976. I’d already suffered through The Apple Dumpling Gang a year earlier, and am thankful that I remember little of either film over 40 years later. If I have to watch a comedy western, please make it Blazing Saddles.

E. Pen Long’s inscription at El Morro

Speaking of humor, some of the inscriptions are funny. One translates as, “The 14th day of July 1736 the General Juan Paez Hurtado, Inspector, passed by here.” Right below this was added, “And in his company, Corporal Joseph Trujillo.” I’ll wager the General had his back turned. You can see many more images and descriptions of the inscriptions in a blog post by Wayne Chatfield.

Graffiti at the tip of the headland

Wendy’s vertical panorama

As we rounded the tip of the cuesta, there were many inscriptions both high and low, including some that were boxed. Ones ending in U.P.R. were carved by a Union Pacific Railroad survey crew that came by in 1868. That project wasn’t carried through, since the Santa Fe Railroad went through 25 miles north of El Morro, ending its place as a stopover on the route west. Otherwise, El Morro might today be adjacent to I-40 and would no doubt have even more graffiti.

Wendy took a neat vertical panorama shot of the tip of the monument with her iPhone, with the sun glaring down. That illustrated how it was getting pretty warm, and both John and Wendy decided they would prefer not to continue the hike up to the top of the cuesta to view the pueblo ruins. So they took a side trail back to the visitor center while Betty and I forged onward.

The Mesa Top Trail

We passed a nearly vertical smooth face of the monument, unmarred by old graffiti. Up near the top edge of the cuesta we could see a huge slab of rock that would someday separate and fall.

Cavelike openings

Cavelike openings in the side of the wall are formed when rain atop the mesa enters cracks in the rock, runs down the joints, and comes out of small openings on the side. The seeping water and freeze/thaw cycles weaken the sandstone and forms large holes. The sandstone in this area is only sand grains held together by kaolinite clay, since it was never buried deep enough for pressure to fuse the grains into more solid rock.

A slab about ready to go

We rounded the point where the huge slab of rock will someday collapse and the trail began climbing to the top of the mesa in a series of switchbacks. Up top we had a panoramic view of the broad flatland separating El Morro from another mesa, with the highway running between them.

Eroded flatland around El Morro

The flatland was formed when water gradually wore away the softer rocks of the Chinle formation, with the harder sandstones of El Morro and the other mesa resisting the erosion. More than ten thousand feet of sedimentary rocks have been removed over the last few million years to form this landscape, which was under the water of an ancient ocean about 100 million years ago. 40 million years before that, the sand that makes up El Morro was accumulating on a broad desert-like plain.

This geologic history explains the color variation in the layers of El Morro. The dark upper layers are ocean sands, while the light colors below that are from earlier stream and dune sands of the desert period. The valley floor also has a veneer of volcanic basalt that was laid down 100,000 years ago. To the east is the Chain of Craters area of El Malpais National Monument, including the volcano we’d soon be visiting. The most recent eruptions there date back 3,000 years.

Box Canyon at El Morro

Up top we could see how El Morro is a hollowed out headland, with a box canyon eroded behind that. The trail ran along the top of the remaining headland around the box canyon to eventually reach the excavated pueblo ruins atop the far side of the cuesta, although there were unexcavated ruins on the near side as well.

Pillar in the box canyon

A huge pillar of uneroded stone remained near the center of the box canyon. We walked along the rim, following a marked line across the stone. Tilted shrubby trees grew up top, and we crossed the long joints in the top which erode to create the cuesta’s sharp vertical headland. To our left was a panoramic view of the countryside.

Pueblo indians enlarged potholes on the top of the mesa to capture rainwater, in addition to relying on the pool at the base of the cuesta. Parts of the trail ran along the joints in the rock. I had Betty pose in one joint and at a saddle connecting the two halves of the headland.

Betty at the saddle of the trail

Kaolinite layer hoodoo

We passed by the end of the box canyon, with its flat floor displayed below. The top of the formation had a white layer that had eroded in one spot into a hoodoo. The park service has carved steps and stairways into this layer in various locations, making the trail more accessible and fun. The white layer was its own trail marker, leading us over to the Atsinna ruin. Betty gamefully tagged along behind me as I eagerly scrambled over the rock face.

Steps carved into the kaolinite layer

As we approached the excavated ruins, we could see the line of white stone behind us. This white layer is bleached Zuni Sandstone, formed when active erosion and weathering over 50 million years attacked green clay minerals and feldspar, altering them to white kaolinite clay. Iron dissolved and percolated to form dark crusts and bands lower down. The removal of the iron and alteration of the green clay produced the white bleached zone. Kaolinite is used in many products, including paper, toothpaste, light bulbs, cosmetics, and the old formulation of Kaopectate I grew up with. I will never forget its chalky taste.

We finally reached the ruin of the Atsinna pueblo. The entire pueblo, mostly unexcavated, is about 200 by 300 hundred feet long and parts of it probably were three stories high along the north side. The pueblo was terraced down to the south, providing a southern exposure. In 1954 twelve of the rooms and both a round and a square kiva were excavated by Richard B. Woodbury and a Zuni work crew. The entire pueblo probably had more than 800 rooms.

The excavated part of the Atsinna Pueblo

Today’s hikers are actually walking on the second level of the pueblo, about ten feet above the original ground level. The ground level was filled with debris from the collapse of the upper stories after the settlement was abandoned.

It is speculated that crop failures may have led to that decision, since the people seem to have moved west and founded Zuni villages known in historic times. There, around the present Zuni pueblo, the growing season is longer and irrigation can be practiced.

The pueblo had a commanding view of the lands to the east. We could see the Visitor Center below, where Wendy and John were patiently awaiting our return.

View from Atsinna Pueblo

A conquistador’s pareidolia profile atop El Morro

We followed the trail down the side of the cuesta. Pareidolia, our mental habit of seeing faces in nature, had me seeing the profile of a heavily beaded conquistador at the right edge of a formation atop the hillside above us.

Wendy and John were relaxing on the porch at the Visitor Center, having visited with the ranger and conversed with each other while Betty and I sweated our way across the top of the cuesta. I had water while hiking on the trail and at the visitor center, but I was yearning for a cool soft drink, which the monument did not offer. So I was glad the Ice Cave and Bandera Volcano tourist attraction was only a 25-minute drive to the east, as I knew they offered snacks at their trading post. We left El Morro at 2:30 pm.

Ice Cave & Bandera Volcano

Back in the 1930s a trading post was built here with a saloon and dance hall. They mined ice from the ice cave to cool the beer! In 1946, Dave and Reddy Candelaria began operations as a tourist attraction, halting mining of the ice.

While the others in our party explored the artifacts, rocks, pottery, and so forth in the trading post, I found the soft drinks at the rear and enjoyed a cool and freshing can of Coca-Cola. We paid to hike the trails and opted to do the crater trail first. That way we could recuperate from a warm hike up into the crater of the volcano by visiting the cold ice cave.

Trails at Bandera Volcano and Ice Cave

The crater was northwest of the trading post. The trail went past a spatter cone. When a surge of hot air rushing through lava forms surface tubes and minor vents, it splashes out when the air breaks through to the surface, forming this sort of blow hole.

Climbing the side of the cinder cone

Soon we were slowly circling and climbing the side of the cinder cone. John commented on how the benches all along the trail were always placed in full sun, making them less than desirable on a hot sunny day like we were having.

Eventually we rounded to where we could see where the side of the crater had blown out. The trail led on past jagged lava formations, and the ladies briefly sheltered in a trailside lava overhang.

Leaching lava

Beside the trail we could see colors from various elements leaching from the lava. White areas were calcium, yellow were sodium and sulfur, and red was iron.

The El Malpais region has 29 volcanoes, and Bandera is the largest. Its cinder cone developed 10,000 years ago. Then a massive lava flow broke out on one side and extended 23 miles across the landscape. The extinct crater is about 1,400 feet wide at the top and about 800 feet deep.

Bandera Crater

Panning for gemstones

We made our way back to the trading post to enjoy its restroom and some cool drinks. Before setting out to see the ice cave, Betty bought a couple bags of dirt spiked with gemstones, arrowheads, and more. She and John have expertise in panning for gold, and Betty showed Wendy how to pan for the gems using a the large sluice set up beside the trading post. John and I sat in the shade nearby and chuckled as Wendy delightedly panned for her rocks.

Then we took the shorter trail south to the ice cave. A long wooden stairway led down into the cave, which was in part of the Bandera lava tube. When molten lava pours out of a volcano, the porous lava is a great insulator, so the surface hardens while a pipeline of lava flows beneath. The Bandera tube is 17.5 miles long, and most of it has collapsed. I had a memorable adventure back in 2009 hiking over a mile through an intact lava tube at the Newberry monument in Oregon.

The Ice Cave

The cave temperature never rises above 31 degrees Fahrenheit because it contains a 20 foot thick well of ice that has accumulated in a well insulated cave shaped so that the frigid air is trapped. The Pueblo indians knew this as Winter Lake and mined the ice. The thick ice is green with algae and its deepest layer dates back 3,400 years. Mining of ice before 1946 left an ice wall against the back of the cave that reached 12 feet high, but since then the floor has risen as ice accumulated, the rate varying with annual rainfall.

After hours up in the sun, we all loved the cold air down above the ice. We could feel a dramatic shift in temperature as we descended below the overhanging cave mouth. It was startling to see icicles hanging from the lava given the hot day above us. I got a shot of little domes of ice formed by water drips.

Onward to Santa Fe

It had been quite a day, but we had missed lunch and were hungry. So at 5 p.m. we set course to find dinner on I-40. I wanted something filling, so we ended up at the Pizza Hut in Grants. The train track was nearby, and when one of the many trains we had seen throughout the trip rumbled toward us, Wendy whimsically gestured for the engineer to blow the horn. She was overjoyed when he obliged.

Our party arrived at the Hotel Santa Fe at 9 p.m. Wendy had fun arranging the petrified wood she had purchased, along with the gemstones and arrowheads she had panned, in one corner of a countertop in our room. Kion guarded her treasures.

Kion guarding Wendy’s treasures

The next day would be the last day of our vacation shared with the Hendersons, as they would be heading home in the afternoon while Wendy and I stayed on for a few days in Santa Fe.


A Grand Adventure, Conclusion: Santa Fe >

A Grand Adventure, Day 6: Winslow & Holbrook

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A Grand Adventure, Day 6: Winslow & Holbrook


After breakfast on Day 6, it was time to begin the homeward journey. We still had new sites to see in the days to come, including a hike at a monument we had never visited, a volcano and ice cave, and a visit to Santa Fe. But Day 6 was focused on rocks for the ladies.

Both Wendy and Betty love stones, including petrified wood. We had whetted their appetites with our visit to the north end of the Petrified Forest a few days earlier. It was time to take them to Holbrook, Arizona near the south end of the Petrified Forest. That town has several rock shops that boast ample amounts of legally acquired petrified wood from the region outside of the national park.

Day 6 Trip Map

Taking it easy in Winslow, Arizona

So we headed south on Highway 64 and then east on Interstate 40, back through the south end of Flagstaff toward Holbrook. That was a 172 mile, 2.5 hour drive. So we made a couple of pit stops, including my decision to pull off at Winslow, Arizona. I was influenced by a song by Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey:

Well, I’m a standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona
and such a fine sight to see.
It’s a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford
slowin’ down to take a look at me.

I was fortunate to see Glenn Frey perform Take It Easy with the Eagles in Tulsa’s BOK Center back in 2013, thanks to board of education member Rick Boswell, whose family generously invited me to join them at that stop on the History of the Eagles tour. The song was the group’s first single back in 1972. Little did the Boswells and I know in 2013 that we would lose Glenn Frey in January 2016 due to complications from rheumatoid arthritis.

Back in 1999, Winslow built Standin’ on the Corner Park on a street corner, with a mural and a statue of a young man with a guitar. That was enough to get me to drive the historic Route 66 through downtown, which was bypassed by I-40 in the late 1970s.

Standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona

There was a crowd of people taking photos on the street corner, with Take It Easy playing on a speaker. I didn’t want to stop and fight the crowd for a picture, but was able to capture a shot of a new statue leaning on a nearby lamppost…one of Glenn Frey which was erected in June 2016. Take it easy, Glenn.

The Hendersons were separated from us in the traffic in downtown Winslow. It took awhile for us to rendezvous, and  I took the opportunity to look at La Posada, the last of the great railroad Harvey Hotels. It was built in 1929 as the final link in a chain of hotels for the southwest tourist trade. Architect Mary Colter considered it her finest work.

The Great Depression and the end of the passenger train era doomed La Posada, and it closed by the end of the 1950s. The railroad auctioned off its furnishings, which Colter had hand-picked, in 1959. By then she was 89 and sorely disappointed, saying, “There’s such a thing as living too long.”

The railroad hid the building’s interior beauty, partitioning it into office space. It eventually tried to get rid of the property by offering it to the city for $1 in 1992, but the city declined. Local residents Marie La Mar and Janice Griffin applied for and received a $350,000 federal grant to save the building. When asked how they expected to raise the required matching funds, they replied, “By the grace of God and the spirit of Mary Colter.”

College student Allen Affeldt answered the call, securing seed money from a backer to provide the $150,000 match required for the grant. Affeldt, his wife, her brother, and a college friend moved into the hotel and began to restore it. Years of work have brought La Posada back to life: “The gardens are back, guest rooms are open, and fireplaces, faux-adobe walls, arched ceilings, and period furnishings await the visitor.”

La Posada Hotel in Winslow, AZ

Wendy posed by the charming entry to the grounds. The pastel front facade is beautiful, with a lovely desert garden out front, complete with braying donkey. The cool interior looks great, too, with much attention to detail.

Artwork is featured in multiple public rooms, with many intriguing works by Tina Mion. I was struck by the often humorous political content in her Ladies First series of paintings of the wives of U.S. Presidents; this was art with a message. Her The Ace of Clubs painting of Mary Todd Lincoln was quite striking, with its slot machine imagery regarding that troubled soul.

Mary Todd Lincoln painting by Tina Mion

Holbrook Rock Shops

Dinosaurs in Holbrook

It was too soon after breakfast to stay for lunch, so we left La Posada and headed east to Holbrook, where we had lunch at Tom & Suzie’s Diner. My initial plan after lunch was to let the ladies scrounge through the rocks at the Rainbow Rock Shop while John and I enjoyed the silly dinosaurs outside.

Sadly, the dinosaurs were there, but owner Adam Luna was not. John inquired at a western wear store on the corner, and reported back that the rock shop had reportedly been closed for months. We did not despair, since just down the road was a large and professional operation, Jim Gray’s Petrified Wood Company.

Jim and Cathy Gray started the Petrified Wood Company more than 48 years ago. They own the mineral rights to several sections of land near the Petrified Forest National Park. They do their own digging, cutting and polishing, creating full rounds, tabletops and bookends, and more. Their family-run huge store is packed with beautiful stones of all types, with quite reasonable prices.

Wendy and Betty had a blast, scouring the comfortable air-conditioned store before venturing outside to spend a long time in the hot sun trawling through hot piles of unpolished rough cut petrified stone, priced at two dollars per pound. John and I moseyed around inside the cool store, and he mentioned enjoying watching a fellow have a huge petrified stone loaded into a pickup, with what appeared to be his wife nearby. She was watching the operation with an expression that told its own story. Fortunately for John and me, Betty and Wendy selected small stones as their acquisitions.

Through the Petrified Forest

Crystal City rocks

It was a few miles eastward on Highway 180 to the south entry to Petrified Forest National Park. We had only covered its northern tip in our earlier visit, so now we would drive all of the way through the park to see more of the landscape. We stopped at the Crystal Forest Museum & Gifts just outside the park, not to shop, but to pose by their pyramidal display of stones and crystals.

We had spent a long time at the rock shop, and it was getting quite warm, so we did not stop to walk around sites in the Petrified Forest, but dallied along the drive through park, snapping photos of the varied terrain.

Driving through a weird eroded terrain

Mounded ash layers and eroded ash sediments formed banded hills of grays and blacks and browns, sculpted by time.

Eroded layers in the Petrified Forest

Out by I-40 we saw a 1932 Studebaker shell placed where historic Route 66 once ran through the park. The Mother Road was decommissioned in 1985. It was superseded by I-55, I-44, and I-40, and over in California by portions of I-15, I-210, and I-10. I like to think it took six interstates to replace that one two-lane road from Chicago to Los Angeles, which was dreamed up in the 1920s by Tulsa’s Cyrus Avery.

1932 Studebaker on the remains of The Mother Road

We made our way back onto I-40 to resume our eastward trek. Wendy captured a shot of one of the trains passing through the landscape as we drove onward across the state line into New Mexico. We stopped in Gallup for dinner at The Cracker Barrel and spent the night at the Best Western Plus Gallup Inn & Suites. The next day we would make our way to Santa Fe, stopping along the way to visit El Morro and a volcano with an ice cave.


A Grand Adventure, Day 7: El Morro & the Ice Cave >

A Grand Adventure, Day 5: To Desert View & Marble Canyon

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A Grand Adventure, Day 5: To Desert View & Marble Canyon


We managed to get on the road earlier on Day 5, heading out at 8:30 a.m. to re-enter the park and head east on Desert View Drive for a series of viewpoints strung along the 20 miles between the visitor center and the Desert View Watchtower at the southeastern edge of the Grand Canyon. After that we drove 100 miles to Navajo Bridge across Marble Canyon.

Day 5

There were relatively few tourists at the first four viewpoints, although we had crowds when we arrived at Desert View around lunchtime. Two short video clips Wendy shot at Mather Point on Monday afternoon and at Lipan Point on Tuesday morning show the difference. I slowed the clips down, so if you turn up the volume, you’ll hear what sounds like a wailing man, but it was actually just a crying baby!

Desert View Drive

Grandview Point

John at Grandview Point

Grandview Point, the southernmost view on the South Rim, offered a tremendous view of Horseshoe Mesa below us. That is where Pete Berry operated the Last Chance Mine from 1893-1907, extracting copper ore which was hauled by teams of mules up to the Grandview Point. It was one of the few profitable mines in the area. There is still a trail leading down to the mine, which relies upon log cribbing and other tricks to shorten the trek. The view to the west was also tremendous, and I took snapshots of John and Betty with that background. Grandview gets more rainfall than the other viewpoints, so there were actually some flowers here, which Wendy captured with her lens.

View eastward from Moran Point

Moran Point was next. I presumed it was named after Thomas Moran, whose spectacular landscapes are among my favorite paintings. But it is probably named for his brother, Peter, who traveled to the South Rim in 1881. There were quite different views to the east and west from this viewpoint. Since I am pulling together photos from four different cameras for this post (my Canon EOS Rebel T6, Canon PowerShot SX700 HS, and both Wendy’s and my iPhone 6 cameras), which were not time-synchronized, I sometimes have to look up a location online for verification. That led me to a beautiful daybreak photo Adam Schaullau captured at Moran Point. I don’t pretend to have the patience or skill for such a shot, but I certainly can admire it.

Kiva at Tusayan Ruins

The Tusayan Pueblo Ruins were next, on the opposite side of Desert View drive from the viewpoints. These were used for about 20 years, starting around 1185, and are one of the 4,300 archeological sites in the park. The bases of the walls are stabilized in place, and there are traces of a large kiva at the site. The little museum dates back to 1928 and is an interpretation of a Hopi structure. The ancestors of the Hopis who occupied this and similar sites were once referred to as Anasazi, a Navajo term for “ancient enemies”, which offends contemporary pueblo dwellers. So the term “ancestral puebloans” is now used.

The Colorado from Lipan Point, including Hance Rapid

Lipan Point was our next stop for viewing, which had a good view of the Colorado River to the west, including Hance Rapid, where the river falls three stories and side stream boulders make it a challenge for those running the river. There were also good views to the east of the Colorado, and sharp-eyed John spotted a boat going down the Colorado far below.

Desert View Watchtower

At Navajo Point, which also had beautiful views of the canyon, we could see the Desert View Watchtower visible on the rim to the right. The Watchtower was our last stop in the park, just in time for lunch. Mary Colter’s tower has intricately designed stonework, which was left rough to blend better with the landscape. Here is an interesting example of her demanding attention to detail:

At one point she had to leave for a day and the workmen continued to put on stone, completing two layers. When she returned, she was not satisfied with one stone on the newly laid layers, and the men had to take the whole thing down and re-do it to her exacting specifications.

The crowds were back with us, with so many people in the tower that I only made it to the second level to view some of the paintings on the walls by Fred Kabotie. There were so many people on the narrow stairs that I did not care to climb higher.

Hopi life mural by Fred Kabotie with a young tourist gazing upward at more of his work above

Wendy pointed out the Reflectoscopes, black mirrors mounted beside some of the windows. Back around the start of the 19th century, landscape painters would use similar devices of black onyx to condense and simplify the views they were sketching. Much like the filters used in Photoshop, the devices could emphasize the colors and lines in a view.

Back outside, Wendy spotted a lizard as we made our way over to the Desert View General Store for a lunch of Indian tacos. Ready to leave the crowds behind, we set out on a 100-minute drive to Navajo Bridge across Marble Canyon.

Gorge of the Little Colorado

We exited the park on Highway 64 and soon reached the Gorge of the Little Colorado River. It drains the Painted Desert and most of it is a dry braided wash which only has water after heavy snowmelt or a flash flood. The lower 57 miles are the Little Colorado River Gorge, which reaches a depth of 3,000 feet by the time it joins the Colorado River near Desert View.

The Navajo Nation had a scenic pull-out for the gorge, and we discovered it was a short hike to get a good view of it. While Wendy and Betty examined trailside rocks, John and I forged ahead for the view. We saw a dry wash at the bottom of the steep walls of the gorge.

Gorge of the Little Colorado

The Powell Geographic Expedition, on August 10, 1869, was one of the first American parties to sight the Little Colorado River. Two members of the party were singularly unimpressed:

It is a lo[a]thesome little stream, so filthy and muddy that it fairly stinks. It is only 30 to 50 [yards] wide now and in many places a man can cross it on the rocks without going on to his knees … [The Little Colorado was] as disgusting a stream as there is on the continent … half of its volume and 2/3 of its weight is mud and silt. [It was little but] slime and salt … a miserably lonely place indeed, with no signs of life but lizards, bats and scorpions. It seemed like the first gates of hell. One almost expected to see Cerberus poke his ugly head out of some dismal hole and growl his disapproval of all who had not Charon’s pass.

-George Bradley & Jack Sumner, August 1869

It turned out they were seeing the effects of a rare flash flood. When and where it flows, the river is normally a bright blue color caused by dissolved travertine and limestone in the water. The main Colorado River is green these days instead of reddish-brown, something we’d noticed from the various overlooks. This is because the Glen Canyon Dam above Marble Canyon traps sediment.

Landscape near Marble Canyon

Marble Canyon is north of the Grand Canyon, being the segment of the Colorado River that lies between Lee’s Ferry and where the Colorado joins the Little Colorado. We were headed to the Navajo Bridge over the canyon.

Volcanic layers on the way north

Wendy was fascinated by the varied landscape as we traveled north on Highway 89. Contrasting gray layers of ash told of a volcanic past that varied over time.  Higher up were brown and red layers of more recent times, giving way to still lighter tones. Small settlements were dwarfed by the background rocks.

Navajo Bridge

The two spans of Navajo Bridge

The newer spandrel span

We finally reached the dual Navajo Bridge. The older of the two steel spandrel spans is to the left in the photo and north of the later span. The old bridge was built from 1927-1929, is a 834 feet long, but only 18 feet wide. It was finally replaced by a new span built from 1993-1995, which is 44 feet wide. The old span is still open for pedestrian use. Both spans are about 470 feet above the Colorado River.

Beautiful organic architecture of the Navajo Bridge Visitor Center

I was fascinated by the visitor center, which beautifully integrates with the landscape. It is an extension of the 1930s Wayside Observation Shelter which was built in the rustic southwestern style by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

The Colorado from Navajo Bridge

We walked out on the old bridge to look down at the Colorado. I was struck by how narrow the bridge was, and glad we had crossed on the much wider span to the south. The cliffs west of the bridge were quite beautiful in a formidable way.

Cliffs west of Navajo Bridge

Just four miles north of the bridge was Lee’s Ferry. We turned off the highway and ventured up to the crossing.

Lee’s Ferry

Lee’s Ferry provided boat service across the Colorado for sixty years. John Lee, a Mormon who had participated in the Mountain Meadows massacre, established the service in 1873 to serve Morman settlers traveling from Utah to Arizona. He only ran it for four years before he was executed for his role in the massacre 20 years earlier. The Morman church bought the ferry in 1879, and it continued to operate under different polygamist managers until the Navajo Bridge was completed in 1929.

Lee’s Ferry

We did not find any historic signage or buildings at the ferry crossing, just the spot where some rafts are put into the river. The slope across the river was Lee’s Backbone, a dangerous incline wagons once traveled to climb up the south side of the valley. We missed the turn leading to the Lonely Dell Ranch where Lee lived, which does have structures from the time he and others ran the operation.  The area could certainly use some more prominent signage and should offer maps and brochures at the pay station.

There were large roadside hoodoos in the park and vicinity. Wendy scrambled out to pose beneath one to provide scale.

Wendy is dwarfed by a hoodoo

We drove a bit west on highway 89A past Navajo Bridge, the route to the Grand Canyon’s less visited North Rim, to see the Vermilion Cliffs. But it was growing late, so after a quick look at one stretch of the cliffs we turned back to return to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim.

Some of the Vermilion Cliffs

Cameron Trading Post

Cameron Trading Post

On the return trip we stopped at the Cameron Trading Post where highway 89 crosses the Little Colorado. This large facility was busting with tourist trinkets and had a large dining room and hotel area. There really isn’t much else for tourists along the route, so the trading post was busy.

Traders Hubert and C.D. Richardson opened the post in 1916 after a suspension bridge was built nearby. Early visitors were mainly Navajo and Hopi Indians who bartered hand-made goods for food staples.

We weren’t ready to eat, so we returned to Tusayan and ate at We Cook Pizza & Pasta. We turned in, knowing that the next day would begin our return eastward, including a stop in Holbrook, Arizona for the ladies to purchase petrified rocks before we headed north through the Petrified Forest.


A Grand Adventure, Day 6: Winslow & Holbrook >

< A Grand Adventure, Day 4: The South Rim

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A Grand Adventure, Day 4: The South Rim


Most of our party slept in the next day to recover from two long travel days, although John was up early. We had breakfast in the same Canyon Room restaurant we had dined in the previous evening. Then all four of us hopped into my car. We knew parking was limited at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, so carpooling made sense, and that also meant we only needed to buy one car pass into the national park.

Our first stop, however, was the National Geographic Imax theater. I remembered the exciting and well-made Imax film on the canyon which I’d seen there with my father back in 1991. It turned out they are still showing that same film to this day, even though it was shot back in 1984, when I was just graduating from high school.

I was playing tour guide since I’d been to the canyon long ago. I decided we should park the car at the visitor center at Mather Point and then ride shuttle buses to other points on the rim to the west. That way we could take shelter from the wind in the old lodges at Grand Canyon Village.

We parked in one of several lots at Mather Point and grabbed a lunch of cold sandwiches. It was an uncomfortably windy outdoor meal, with cool and strong gusts from the north. So we were wearing jackets, and I had my Tilley hat strapped down when we got our first look at the canyon. We had to walk over towards Mather Point, whereas I remembered it being right off the road. The Park Service reworked the area back in 2010.

Panorama from near Mather Point

The view was, of course, quite stunning. I remember feeling disoriented upon my first view of the canyon with my father back in 1991, and Wendy had a similar experience upon her first sight of it. She felt dizzy as her mind struggled to interpret the immense chasm, with the North Rim 10 miles away and the canyon bottom a mile below us. The view was literally vertiginous. We exchanged taking couples photographs to celebrate our arrival.

It was a Monday afternoon, but the South Rim was busy. There were loads of tourists like us, of various nationalities, all along the rails at Mather Point and points beyond. We made our way out to the point, where Little Kion joined in the fun, trying to act big.

Mather Point is now the first view of the canyon for most tourists, and it is fittingly named after Stephen Mather. He was the energetic first director of the Park Service in the early 20th century. He was bipolar, so his manic efforts on behalf of the parks were often followed by nervous breakdowns, but he accomplished much, and he was one of the main advocates for establishing a Grand Canyon National Park.

View from Mather Point

Bright Angel Trail photo by Michael Quinn

I could see the Isis Temple prominence poking up from the North Rim five miles away, with the line of a trail visible across one of the mesas on our side of the canyon. The Park Service photograph at right by Michael Quinn shows the many switchbacks of the Bright Angel Trail, which leads down to the canyon bottom.

The Temple of Isis formation

We boarded a shuttle which took us to the Yavapai Geology Museum. This small facility was built in 1928 and rededicated in 2007 after a renovation. It had a large topographic relief map and a rock layer display. We scanned them, but I think John had the right idea: sit down and enjoy the view. The Temple of Isis was directly across the canyon from there. Our couples again took snapshots of each other outside, and Wendy posed near the rim for me.

Wendy on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon

Cave at the canyon

We had all noticed a large cave-like opening in the side of one ridge, and my superzoom camera provided a better look at it. 335 of the estimated 1,000 caves in the canyon have been recorded, but only one can be toured.

John is quite observant. His sharp eyes spied a bridge across the Colorado far below. I used my superzoom on that as well. It is a 440 foot span that carries hikers and mules 70 feet above the river to Phantom Ranch.

Another shuttle bus ride took us to Grand Canyon Village, where there are several lodges. I’d checked on rooms there many months back, but they were all booked up, and the crowds along the rim and in the lodge lobbies made me glad we stayed at the Best Western in Tusayan.

El Tovar Hotel

We climbed up from the train depot to visit the lobby and gift shop at the El Tovar Lodge, which was designed by Charles Whittlesey for the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe and opened back in 1905. It has a rather dark lobby, and its exterior was designed as a cross between a Swiss chalet and a Norwegian Villa in a mishmash of styles in the manner popular in that era. I much prefer the more cohesive rustic style of Mary Colter‘s Bright Angel Lodge of 1935. Both hotels were Harvey Houses, with the Bright Angel created as a less expensive alternative to El Tovar.

Colter designed many structures along the South Rim, including the Hopi House, which opened in 1905 adjacent to the El Tovar as a gift shop of Native American items, and it still serves that function. It has a striking exterior with its varied windows and intricately stacked stones. The interior is so crowded with tourists and wares that one struggles to make out its architectural details.

Hopi House

Along the rim we could see a prominence on our side of the canyon somewhat like the Isis Temple. Below it we could see the Bright Angel Trail following Garden Creek to a grove of trees which mark the Indian Garden campground. John’s sharp eyes picked out buildings down there, confirmed by my superzoom camera. There is a trail leading out across the top of the mesa that dead-ends at the canyon drop; that is a side trail from Bright Angel to Plateau Point and takes hours to hike. From the rim it is difficult to gauge the distances below.

To the right of the prominence the Bright Angel Trail goes through Indian Gardens; a prominent trail above that in the photo goes to Plateau Point

Another view from Grand Canyon Village; this is why the lodges are positioned here

We walked along the Rim Trail for the beautiful views at Grand Canyon Village. The desert air was drying us out, and the water we carried was now warm, so we hoped to find some cool refreshments. Verkamp’s Curios Store from 1905 was still selling items, but not refreshments. So I led us back west along the Rim Trail, knowing that Bright Angel Lodge would surely offer something.

We passed the back side of the El Tovar, which had a bunch of plants growing in protective cages. Farther along the rim we could see Colter’s Lookout Studio perched atop its mountain of rock. I could see tourists on its various levels gazing out into the canyon.

Lookout Studio

We passed the uninspiring Kachina and Thunderbird lodges of the 1960s and, sure enough, found an ice cream stand at the Bright Angel Lodge. After that treat, we toured the Harvey House room in the lodge, which I remembered from my 1991 visit with my father.

Outside, we located the Bright Angel Trailhead where hikers and mules make the hours-long trek to the bottom of the canyon. John goes on trail rides with his own mule, but none of us had wanted to book a mule ride down into the canyon. After one last look out at the canyon, we were ready to call it a day.

A parting shot for the day

We took the shuttle back to the car and had dinner at the Big E Steakhouse in Tusayan. They had a neat slideshow running on the stage, but I suggest you avoid their mushroom & cream cheese wontons. Our servers kept forgetting to bring them and, when they finally did, I wish they hadn’t. But we enjoyed our steaks.

Wendy and I returned to our hotel room to discover we had been left only decorative pillows on the bed, and none of the ones for sleeping. I notified the front desk, and a bellboy delivered some to us. But Wendy noticed they felt damp and one had the odor of someone’s bottom. We made do with the three that were least objectionable, and the next morning she wrote a note to the housekeeper about the problem in both English and Spanish. I included the usual nice tip with it, grateful that my wife knows some Spanish, whereas I only retain a tiny bit of Latin, which is of little use in everyday living. Wendy’s note yielded a sincere apology, written in Spanish, that indicated gratitude for our tips and our bed was outfitted with new pillows for the next night. The pillows were still too squishy, collapsing to a thin layer when you rested your head on them, but at least they were dry and smelled fresh.

For our second day at the canyon, we got up earlier for a morning drive east along the rim to Desert View, hoping to avoid some of the crowds, and then headed north in the afternoon to see the Navajo Bridge at Marble Canyon.


A Grand Adventure, Day 5: To Desert View & Marble Canyon >

< A Grand Adventure, Day 3: The Petrified Forest

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A Grand Adventure, Day 3: The Petrified Forest


The third day of our adventure out west in June 2017 was a long drive from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Tusayan, Arizona featuring a drive through the north end of the Petrified Forest National Park.

We drove west from Albuquerque through El Malpais, the Badlands of west central New Mexico. Thousands of acres of landscape to the south is broken up by pitch-black, concrete-hard, glassy, sharp rock with many lava tubes and craters. I tried to tour the volcanic landscape back in 2011, but was thwarted by a storm which flooded the unpaved roadway. In the end, I wound up with a muddy mess of a car both inside and out.

Lava field beside I-40 in El Malpais

It turned out we would travel through the Badlands four days later on our eastward return from the Grand Canyon. But for the trip west we forged onward to Gallup for lunch at a Cracker Barrel and onward into Arizona to visit the north end of the Petrified Forest.

I-40 paralleled one of the three transcontinental routes of the Burlington, Northern, and Santa Fe railroad from just east of Grants, New Mexico for over 275 miles to our turnoff to the Grand Canyon in central Arizona. Our fellow traveller John Henderson builds bridges for the BNSF’s main competitor, Union Pacific. Wendy and I marvelled at the frequent long trains with multiple engines which we saw all along the route.

Northern part of the Petrified Forest

200 miles west of Albuquerque we turned north off I-40 to visit the northern part of the Petrified Forest. The petrified wood found in that park and the surrounding region is made up of almost solid quartz. A rainbow of colors is produced by impurities in the quartz, such as iron, carbon, and manganese. Over 200 million years ago, logs washed into an ancient river system and were buried quickly and deeply enough by massive amounts of sediment and debris to cut off the oxygen and extend their decay for centuries.

Petrified wood

Minerals, including silica dissolved from volcanic ash, absorbed into the porous wood over hundreds and thousands of years slowly crystallized within the cellular structure, replacing the organic material as it broke down over time. Sometimes crushing or decay left cracks in the logs where large jewel-like crystals of clear quartz, purple amethyst, yellow citrine, and smoky quartz formed.

I had deliberately included stops at the Petrified Forest on both our way out and back, knowing how much Betty Henderson loves petrified wood. Wendy the rockhound loves the stuff too, of course, and provided several close-up shots. At the visitor center John spotted a huge petrified log we could examine.

Petrified log

We paid $20 for each vehicle to enter the forest, even though we only had time to visit the viewpoints north of the interstate; the passes were good for a week, so they would serve us again in a few days when we would drive through the park from its southern entrance on our return journey.

Tiponi Point was our first panorama of the Painted Desert. The desert here is composed of stratified layers of easily erodible siltstone, mudstone, and shale of the Triassic Chinle Formation. The iron and manganese compounds in these layers provide the vivid colors that led a troop of men from Coronado’s 1540 expedition, who had been sent to find the Colorado river, to name this area El Desierto Pintado.

Tawa Point in the Painted Desert

Next was Tawa Point, with striking color contrasts and multicolored slopes. The Hendersons posed for me there. The road wound around, bringing the Painted Desert Inn into view above Kachina Point.

The Painted Desert Inn

The Inn began as the Stone Tree House by Herbert David Lore, with a top-level lunchroom and area for Indian crafts to be sold, a bottom-level taproom, and six tiny guest rooms. They still sell Native American works in the Inn, and John Henderson bought a lovely bracelet there for John and Betty’s daughter Elizabeth.

Stone Tree House peeking out from the Painted Desert Inn

Mr. Lore built the Stone Tree House with petrified wood and other native stone. Unfortunately, the stones rested on a foundation undermined by a seam of bentonite clay, so the foundation and walls cracked as the clay swelled and shrank. When the Park Service took over the property in the 1930s, architect Lyle Bennett redesigned it in the Pueblo Revival style one sees so much of in Santa Fe, although one can still find the petrified wood used in the old house peeking out around the lower level doorway. The exterior and interior were transformed under Bennett’s direction by CCC workers during the Great Depression.

Mural by Fred Kabotie

The famed Fred Harvey Company, whose hotels and related buildings at the Grand Canyon are prime attractions on its South Rim, took over the property after World War II. Its renowned architect, Mary Colter, added plate glass windows to emphasize the views out to Kachina Point. She also implemented a new color scheme while hiring Hopi artist Fred Kabotie to paint murals on the lunchroom walls.

Continuing structural problems due to the clay underneath the building led the Fred Harvey Company to relocate to the current visitor’s center in 1963. The Painted Desert Inn was threatened with demolition, but a public campaign saved the historic structure. Renovations in 2004-2006 extended its life with thirteen floating roofs, joint-less pipes, and flagstones being re-laid to improve drainage.

I took the time to walk around to the west side of the building and peer into the six tiny rooms, which are little more than cubicles with a corner sink. Some of them were once home to “Harvey girls” who worked at the facility. 

Kachina Point

The Meadors in the Painted Desert

After relaxing at the Inn, we drove on to Pintado Point, where Wendy and I posed in front of the Painted Desert. There is no access to I-40 if one continues through the park, so we turned about for refreshments at the visitor center before continuing our journey west.

With a pit stop at the Flying J outside Winslow and refueling in Flagstaff, we were ready to head to the Best Western in Tusayan, just south of the Grand Canyon. We could not take the direct route from Flagstaff along Highway 180, as it was closed by fire. A lightning strike in early June on the slopes of Kendrick Mountain ignited a wilderness area with many dead and downed trees killed in a wildfire back in 2000. The smoke made Highway 180 impassable, so we had to continue along I-40 west of Flagstaff and take Highway 64 north to Tusayan, from which we could see the smoke billowing from the mountainside.

Smoke from the Kendrick Peak wildfire as we drove along Highway 64

I had been pleasantly surprised by the great condition of I-40 in Oklahoma and New Mexico. But the interstate was in very rough shape in Arizona west of Flagstaff. Signs warned of miles of rough road, and they weren’t kidding. The Flagstaff area usually experiences more than 200 daily freeze-thaw cycles each year where moisture seeps during the day into the asphalt overlay and then pops it when it expands upon freezing overnight. Heavy traffic exacerbates the issue. They need to rip out the interstate here and rebuild it with fresh impervious concrete panels.

We pulled into our hotel, the Best Western Premier Grand Canyon Squire Inn. It was a larger facility than most Best Westerns and even boasts a six-lane bowling alley. In recent years it has been overhauled with a new lobby and a ten-year plan will add 438 additional rooms. I appreciated the attractive lobby and pricey but adequate dining options.

Our room at the Grand Canyon Squire Inn

I usually book a suite, or what a hotel bills as a suite, for Wendy and me since she likes to stay up late and sleep in, while I prefer to go to bed early and rise early. I spent an extra $100 per night for this at the Grand Canyon, over the quite comfortable but linear room the Hendersons occupied.

Our “suite” was very spacious with an enormous bathroom, living area, and small kitchen spot, but it had no true separation of the bedroom area from the living area, and you had to pass through the bedroom area to reach the bathroom. Whenever we find a hotel that truly separates the bedroom from the other areas, we make note of it, as that is a real plus for us as we don’t have to worry so much about waking each other up. The best rooms on this vacation in that regard were the Drury Inn in Amarillo and the DoubleTree Airport in Oklahoma City. But Wendy situated herself in the kitchen area each night while I drifted off to sleep, and all was well…except for the pillows, which is a story for a later post.

The next day we’d drive a few miles north for our first of two days at the Grand Canyon’s South Rim.


A Grand Adventure, Day 4: The South Rim >

< A Grand Adventure, Days 1 & 2: From Cadillac Ranch to TinkerTown

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A Grand Adventure, Days 1 & 2: From Cadillac Ranch to TinkerTown


Dad and his camper in 1991 on our trip out West

Over a quarter century ago my father and I went west in his Volkswagen camper, with him showing me highlights of central New Mexico, southwestern Colorado, and Arizona. In 2013 and 2014 I took Wendy to some of the sites in New Mexico and Colorado, such as the Durango-Silverton railroad, the ruins of Mesa Verde, and Sandia Crest above Albuquerque. But we never made it all the way west to Arizona, so she had never visited the incredible Grand Canyon. My friend and colleague Betty Henderson and her husband, John, had also never visited that natural wonder. That led me to formulate a plan.

In July 2017 I’d be taking up an administrative job, giving up the traditional summer break of a classroom teacher. So I proposed that the four of us travel west in June to see the Grand Canyon and other sites along the route. Betty and John drove separately so that they could head back home after a week on the road, while Wendy and I would remain in Santa Fe, New Mexico for a few extra days. On June 9, 2017 we set out on a journey of over 2,500 road miles, with the far point being the Grand Canyon, over 900 air miles from home.

Click map to enlarge

Our first stop was in Oklahoma City to have lunch with my parents, who are now 80 and 92, respectively. As usual, I kept my iPhone’s FollowMee app on throughout the vacation, allowing my parents to track our progress and vicariously enjoy our trip. Then the Hendersons followed Wendy and me westward on I-40, the successor to much of the famed Route 66. Our first overnight stop would be in Amarillo.

We pulled into Amarillo for a late and disappointing dinner at the Calico County restaurant we had enjoyed so much on previous trip. Thankfully it redeemed itself with tasty breakfasts when Wendy and I came back through the cowtown twelve days later. We spent our first night at the Drury Inn & Suites, a very nice facility even if the smell created by Amarillo’s livestock wafted into the lobby from time to time.

Cadillac Ranch

Our second day on the road featured our first tourist attraction, the Cadillac Ranch just outside of Amarillo. As usual, visitors were milling about, spray painting the old cars and taking photographs.

Kion went west with us

Wendy had brought a little Kion squeezable figurine with her on the trip, but it didn’t take much of my driving for her to squeeze him so much he burst, necessitating a bandage. Little Kion had stopped with us in Groom, Texas during our first day on the road, showing no fear of The Dreaded Red Tigers. While we were at Cadillac Ranch, he hopped on top of one of the wheels, which were encrusted with over 40 years of paint.

Lunch was at the venerable Joe’s Bar & Grill Cantina in Santa Rosa, a place John had visited with a railroad crew years ago. I avoided the chile sauce on my burrito, but enjoyed filling my sopaipilla with honey.

We found Elvis in Endee, New Mexico

I made sure to stop every hour or so throughout our road travels to give everyone a break. So we stopped in many tourist traps, including Russell’s Travel Center in Endee, New Mexico. Elvis was there alongside a pink cadillac. There weren’t any Stuckey’s along our route, but their Pecan Log Rolls were present, for better or worse.

Clines Corners is the stop on I-40 where Wendy and I usually angle northwest to Santa Fe. Wendy used products from there to outfit Kion with a cowboy hat for Texas and a sombrero to shield him from the strong New Mexico sun.

It was warm throughout most of our vacation, with the exception of a cooler and windy first day at the Grand Canyon. Everyone’s nasal passages dried out in the desert, and Wendy and I were happy to feel the moisture of Green Country upon our return home.


TinkerTown is on the eastern slope of the Sandias

Instead of angling up to Santa Fe at Clines Corners, we drove on west to Albuquerque. We had never been to TinkerTown on the east slope of Sandia Peak, so I led us there to explore the odd structure and admire the wacky and obsessive creations of the late Ross Ward. His motto to “Live Life as the Pursuit of Happiness” was evident in his plethora of dioramas.

Just a bit of the many TinkerTown dioramas

“I’m not sure what to make of this place…”

Wendy had a hoot laughing at the expressions on the faces of various figures, including various wagon drivers, politicians at a seamy hotel, bar folk, characters in an ice cream parlor, coffee drinkers, folks at a burial, a Native American family of sideways glances, the Dukes of Hazzard with a wagon rather than the General Lee race car, and general street folk.

A large circus diorama reflected how Ross Ward was a show painter for carnivals for 30 years. Wendy found one of my heroes, Alfred Hitchcock, lurking in a graveyard near TinkerTown’s animated hell, and we found a display depicting teachers on summer vacation, although I think they went to the beach rather than the desert.

Mr. Twain shares the benefits travel

I appreciated how Mr. Ward highlighted Mark Twain’s sentiment on travel:

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely…broad, wholesome, charitable views…cannot be acquired by vegetating in one’s little corner of Earth.

That comes from Innocents Abroad, which is a great free read if you like travelogues.

Some walls of the ramshackle buildings were built of bottles, showing the influence of Grandma Prisbey’s Bottle Village out in California. There was even a Buddha bottle shrine. Outside, the Hendersons explored Buzzard Gulch, a collection of rusting equipment of the west. Wendy posed for me as Miss TinkerTown.

A project for a stricken man

I was touched to find that a Jeep coated in coins, paint, pebbles, and figurines was a project his wife suggested to Ross after his Alzheimer’s symptoms made it unsafe for him to drive. He had been diagnosed with the disease in his late 50s and died in his early 60s. His daughter, Tanya Ward Goodman, wrote a well-received book about his dilemma.

Up to Sandia Crest

Three years back, Wendy and I rode the tram to Sandia Crest, and we still laugh about how the guide pronounced “mountain” as “mou-ann” during our ride. This time the Hendersons joined us in scaling the peak in our respective Toyota Camrys on a long series of switchbacks up the Sandia Crest Scenic Highway.

The many switchbacks of the road to Sandia Crest

We could not ask for better travelling buddies than these two

Betty and John posed for me up top, with Albuquerque fading into the haze below us and the mountain ridge sloping off to the side.

The altitude at Sandia Crest and New Mexican food at Santa Rosa took their toll on Wendy and me, with us crashing at the hotel near Albuquerque’s Old Town while the Hendersons enjoyed dinner at the St. Clair Bistro.

The next day would bring another long drive west on I-40 from Albuquerque through the north end of the Petrified Forest to Tusayan, just south of the Grand Canyon.


A Grand Adventure, Day 3: The Petrified Forest >

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Why we’re staying

June 23, 2017

This has been a bittersweet time as my 28 years of teaching physics at Bartlesville High School has drawn to a close. In July I’ll being working at the district’s Education Service Center, overseeing its technology and communications efforts. Since I announced this change back in April 2016, various colleagues, alumni, and parents have repeatedly said it was a shame I was leaving the classroom. But they often throw in that they are glad I’ll be staying in the district.

Oklahoma teachers can earn far more in neighboring states

Frankly, it is quite tempting for all Oklahoma teachers to not only leave the classroom, but leave the state altogether. The Republican-controlled state government only found the political courage to raise enough fees and taxes to hold the state common education budget flat for 2017-2018, which means there will be nothing, absolutely nothing, to address our abysmal teacher salaries and record teacher shortage. A generation of Oklahoma schoolchildren are receiving an inadequate education:

  • The state teacher salary schedule has not been increased since 2008; Oklahoma teacher salaries are once again 49th in the nation. Even after adjusting for our state’s low cost of living, an Oklahoma teacher would still need a raise of over $6,000 to match the spending power of the typical U.S. teacher. That means we’re being paid about 88% of what the average teacher makes nationwide even after the cost of living is accounted for. The average teaching salary in Texas is over $6,000 higher than in Oklahoma, and the starting pay there is up to $20,000 higher.
  • Oklahoma has cut its state per pupil spending by 27% since 2008, far more than any other state in the nation and almost twice that of the next most reckless state, Alabama.
  • 1 in 5 Oklahoma school districts have gone to 4-day school weeks in a desperate effort to attract and retain teachers and cut costs; that could approach 1 in 4 in 2017-2018.
  • More than 7% of Oklahoma’s students are taught by emergency certified teachers, ones with little to no teaching experience or teacher training for their subject. We’d be sunk without these folks who are willing to try, but their lack of preparation for the demanding profession is often quite hard on them and their students. Their numbers have risen to over 30 times what it was five years ago:
    • 2011-2012: 32 emergency certifications
    • 2012-2013: 98 emergency certifications
    • 2013-2014: 189 emergency certifications
    • 2014-2015: 506 emergency certifications
    • 2015-2016: 1,063 emergency certifications; 1,530 teaching positions eliminated
    • 2016-2017: 1,160 emergency certifications; about 900 positions left unfilled

The local impact of the state government’s lack of support for schools has been dramatic. Last June we were forced to cut the district’s budget by $1.9 million, including $1.6 million in cuts by eliminating 39 positions, which included 21 teachers. Bartlesville Public Schools will suffer $900,000 in unplanned state funding cuts in 2017 due to repeated revenue failures. For two years the state has failed to provide the money it promised in its budget, so we have little faith that the supposedly flat budget for 2017-2018 won’t be a third fiasco.

Teachers are voting with their feet

These despairing statistics are translating into teachers voting with their feet by walking out of the profession or walking across state lines to teach where their efforts will be more adequately compensated. Recently it was announced that Oklahoma’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Shawn Sheehan, and his wife are leaving Oklahoma, joining an ever-growing exodus of teachers to Texas:

Shawn Sheehan, Oklahoma’s 2016 Teacher of the Year

I represented our state at the highest level. I tried to help find funding sources via (State Question) 779. I ran for state Senate. I started a nonprofit focused on teacher recruitment and retention that has spread nationwide. I’ve done everything I know how to do to try and make things better.-Shawn Sheehan, 2016 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year, who is leaving for Texas

Mr. Sheehan gave up on Oklahoma because of the government’s unwillingness to improve school funding and how he and his wife will each earn far more teaching in Texas than they do here. Who can blame him? Take a look at the difference in their salary schedules. He’ll make more in his first year there than he could ever make in Norman.

But when teachers cite the higher pay in every neighboring state, many folks caution, “But the cost of living is higher there too.” Well, let’s explore that. The map below shows that much of Oklahoma and Texas are comparable, but the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex is noticeably higher. It is time for some calculations, something I presume math teacher Sheehan already did in making his decision.

Cost of living

The Tulsa World has created a nifty online database of Oklahoma teacher salaries, so we can try to analyze the Sheehans’ financial situation. From the published data, they would earn at least a 45% increase in pay for the two of them by moving to Lewisville. Their cost of living in the Dallas metro, where Lewisville is located, will be 18% higher than in Norman for families with children like the Sheehans. Housing is much more expensive there, for example. But they will still enjoy at least a 27% increase in spending power, which is over $20,000 per year for them. Plus he reported that his teaching load will be dramatically different, changing from 150 algebra students per day in Norman to only 69 students per day under Lewisville’s block schedule.

So I don’t blame the Sheehans for giving up on Oklahoma and moving to Texas. With six and four years experience, they are still in their early years of teaching and just had their first child. Mr. Sheehan has described himself as a military brat who was adopted from the Phillipines into an Irish-American family. So he did not grow up here. His wife is from Owasso, so her family there was a tie helping hold them in Oklahoma until now, but the siren song of Texas salaries is simply too loud for them to ignore any longer.

Should I stay or should I go?

Should I stay or should I go now? (Me entra frio por los ojos)
If I go there will be trouble (Si me voy va a haber peligro)
And if I stay it will be double (Si me quedo va a ser doble)
So you gotta let me know
Should I stay or should I go

-The Clash

That song by The Clash resounds in my head, just as it has for Shawn. This year has been very rough for Wendy and me. Teaching physics while handling STEM, district communications, and the student computing initiative meant I had 60-to-80-hour work weeks that left little time for hiking or blogging. Wendy stuck it out for one last year in Special Education, which also was quite rough for various reasons. So we’re exhausted.

No matter what, we’re both changing jobs this summer. If we stay in Bartlesville, I’ll become a district administrator, swapping the ridiculous extra work hours I’ve endured during the school year for year-round administrative work. If we stay, Wendy will be pioneering a new course where students repair Chromebooks and support the use of instructional technology. But she will lose the 5% salary increment she previously earned by teaching in Special Education. So with so much change coming anyway, why not just pack up and leave?

Wendy’s Viewpoint

Wendy’s viewpoint

My first year teaching was in 2001 in Houston, TX. I made as much money that first year as I did after many years of teaching in Oklahoma. I taught 4th grade in Texas, a grade when state testing was a big deal. After that first extremely difficult year in Houston, I fled back to Oklahoma. Everything was more laid back here.

Then the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) turned every state into a high-stakes testing hell. Elementary teaching opportunities dried up after my second successful year of teaching. I went through a reduction in force and, in order to have a teaching job, I tested to become a special education teacher. I continued taking more training and various certification exams so that I could be deemed “highly qualified” under NCLB. So I taught high school level special ed classes at Okmulgee High school for 4 years.

After I moved to Bartlesville, state testing for students evolved into a monster. I had many meetings related to special education students not being able to graduate because they didn’t pass the right exams, too often with limited accommodations on those exams for their disabilities. We had very long and quite specific meetings on remediation even as state resources dried up.

So over the years, I’ve become disgusted with the state of Oklahoma education, and at times I’ve thought, “This is getting to be as bad as Houston. Why am I still doing this for a living?”

I never expected teaching would make me rich. But I certainly never expected to be screwed over so badly. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pondered taking an alternate career outside of education – maybe something related to computers since I’ve had a few years of experience working in that field.

But change is scary, and that is one reason some teachers have stayed in Oklahoma. Many have a set routine and don’t want to disrupt it by packing up everything and starting over in a new state. Many teachers are also very dedicated folks; it is hard for them to walk out. They care about the kids in their community. Too often, that dedication keeps teachers in a place that isn’t the best for themselves. Many teachers are also selfless. They put up with much more abuse than other professionals would.

So I’m thankful to have an opportunity to get back into the technology arena and help students acquire skills they can use in their future careers.

Granger’s reasons for staying

My scientific bent leads me to analyze the primary factors for us to keep working in our Oklahoma public school district. In increasing order of importance, they are money, service, and community.

Monetary impact

I analyzed the monetary impact on us if Wendy and I followed the Sheehans, and so many other Oklahoma teachers, to Texas. With 28 years of teaching experience, I would be near the top of our local salary schedule in 2017-2018. I also have been earning a career-high extra duty pay by working like the devil for chairing the STEM department, chairing the science department through December 2016, being district and site webmaster, being a site technology assistant, handling district communications, and heading up the student computing initiative.

By earning a 38% increase in pay through far too many extra duties, I am actually earning more in Bartlesville than I would in Lewisville, even before the cheaper cost-of-living here is accounted for. The extra duties are what make the difference. Without them, I’d earn 32% more in Lewisville than in Bartlesville, with a real increase in spending power of 15% after adjusting for the cost of living.

My administrative pay in 2017-2018 will make teaching in Texas unattractive

Recognizing that my enormous extra duty workload is lucrative but unsustainable, I’m actually shifting to a high-level administrative position in our district. I’ll have to work about 235 days vs. my current 181-day teaching contract, earning about 30% more than I did in 2016-2017 for a 30% increase in required work days. So I’d actually see my pay drop by 27% if I gave that up to go teach in Lewisville with no extra duties.

Wendy, however, will actually lose money by staying at Bartlesville High School next school year and leaving Special Education. She could earn a whopping 50% more teaching in Lewisville vs. what she will earn in Bartlesville. That would still be a huge increase in spending power after adjusting for the cost of living.

As a married couple, it makes financial sense for us to stay in Bartlesville because my administrative salary will make up for the teaching pay differential between here and Lewisville. However, there is another financial consideration. I’m eligible this summer for early retirement in Oklahoma’s teacher pension system, so I could take early retirement and draw that while teaching in Texas, and then “double-dip” with a second pension when I retired in Texas.

So I might still need another reason to stay…and I actually have two more which are more important to me than money.

Oklahoma needs our help

Senator David Boren in the mid-1980s

The next reason is epitomized by David Boren, a former Oklahoma governor and U.S. senator and now the long-term successful president of the University of Oklahoma. Thirty-three years ago my parents and I visited him in his U.S. Senate office in Washington, D.C. when I was named one of Oklahoma’s U.S. Presidential Scholars. We vividly recall how when we met him, he was so animated and interested in education.

No doubt Senator Boren was pleased to hear back in 1984 that I would be attending OU, and perhaps because of that connection David Boren looked me in the eye and said that I had a personal obligation, as a top student, to make the most of myself and my education, and serve my home state in some capacity after I graduated.

That personal appeal and his barely contained enthusiasm for education meant more to me than all the trite remarks I’d heard in speeches over the years, including President Reagan’s remarks to us in the Rose Garden earlier that week. Boren spoke to my Sooner soul, telling me that an education is a debt due from our state’s present to its future generations.

David Boren at an annual Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence Academic Awards Banquet

And what an example he has set. At our visit in 1984 he spoke at length about how important education was to building up Oklahoma, making this impoverished state a better place to live. Back then he was just developing what would become the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence, which would go on to recognize and support thousands of our state’s best high school seniors and scores of its top teachers and administrators, including giving me a wonderful teaching award 20 years later. After his distinguished political career, he went to OU, and in his first ten years there helped raise over $10 billion in private gifts for the school. In 2016 he led the fight to try to raise the state sales tax by a penny to fund higher teacher salaries and other educational needs. He has always fought for our schools and worked hard to attract and retain academic talent in our state.

I believe in and share in this cause. I have had a direct and prolonged influence on thousands of students. The pay has been atrocious, but the personal rewards have been immense. And I’ve given my all to my district, working in many different capacities over the decades. I chaired the science department for 20 years, helped with win-win contract bargaining for 18 years, ran websites for over a dozen years, promoted many successful bond issues and worked to ensure the funds were well spent, helped secure a $1.7 million STEM grant from Phillips 66, and served on a bewildering array of committees large and small. Working in a school district means that every day I’m serving our students, our city, and our state.  I can always feel proud of what I do.

I still believe in Oklahoma and want to keep on fighting to help it build a better future. But its miserable politics and self-destructive voters make that quite difficult. So I need another reason to stay, and I have it…in spades.

Bartlesville is a great place to work and to live

Back in the summer of 1989 I was choosy about my job search. I did not even apply in the two largest districts of Oklahoma City and Tulsa, knowing those urban cores had challenges I did not care to tackle as a rookie. And I turned down job offers from Moore, Ponca City, and Sapulpa, holding out for my goal of a job teaching physics all day. Thankfully Bartlesville opened up, and I knew to not let the old and inadequate facilities at the high school at that time deter me. I’d worked in Scholars Programs at OU and knew Bartlesville was a powerhouse producer of National Merit Scholars.

Living in a town of only 35,000 people was quite an adjustment for me, having been raised in the Oklahoma City metro area with its population of about one million. I was no longer anonymous and quickly learned that if I wanted any privacy in my social life that required a 45-minute drive south to Tulsa. But I thrived in this small city, and what a unique place it was and is in Oklahoma.

No other small city in this state can boast the quality blend of attractions and the mix of scientific and artistic opportunities Bartlesville has to offer. This reflects its corporate history as the birthplace and longtime headquarters of Phillips Petroleum and other firms. Thanks to that history, we have Woolaroc along with the architectural wonders of the Price Tower and the Bartlesville Community Center. During my first weeks in town in 1989 I was surprised to find a local astronomy club offering a public telescope viewing of the heavens. The next summer I discovered the marvelous OK Mozart festival and its many showcase features outside of the concerts.

That Bartlesville blend of the scientific with the artistic has held true for decades. For years the research center on the west edge of the city hosted a wonderful science teachers conference for all of northeast Oklahoma, and it has sponsored the greatest district science fair in the state for decades. Our Community Center is home to events like OK Mozart, the local symphony, touring broadway shows, a series of community concerts, and more. So this little city is very special.

Our little city

Bartlesville’s size, it turned out, was just right for my career. The city and the district are large enough to offer comprehensive services, yet small enough that hard-working individuals can readily make quite evident contributions and be valued for their efforts. I have been blessed every year with classes of gifted students raised by wonderful parents. Sure, there are always a few challenging ones, just as there are always a few stinkers on any school faculty. But I have always been valued and appreciated by my students, their parents, and my colleagues. Our school district is a great place to work if you are willing to work hard and invest in it, as you will have the opportunity to make a difference and help shape its future.

Bartlesville’s funny water tanks on US 75

Sure, my liberal politics do not jive with most of the voters here or just about anywhere else in Oklahoma, but I’ve found that my fellow Bartians (yes, that is what we are called) are willing to raise their taxes and invest in their schools once we make a good case to them for why it is important and worthwhile. They have proven their resilience time and again through corporate moves, mergers, and downsizing. This is a little city that still believes in its future and is willing to invest in it. Its citizens will not let it dry up and blow away like too many other places in Oklahoma. It even has a sense of humor, despite taking itself rather seriously.

Sure, I wish we had a better selection of restaurants. And our shopping choices are not as diverse as in Owasso. But we can boast a thriving and historic downtown, not just strip malls and big box stores.

Bartlesville has a sense of history and of place

Bartlesville has a strong sense of its history, its character, and of place. It is not a bedroom community that could be swapped with any other; it is a unique and interesting place to live and work. I’ve built a life here, am a valued part of this community, and enjoy contributing to and benefiting from living here. I would never have that sense of making a difference, nor of being a meaningful part of the community dynamic, in a metropolis like Dallas. And the longest possible commute in our city is 20 minutes. Take that, metroplexes!

So Wendy and I are staying, we’re building our new shared life together here, and we’ll continue to invest in our schools and our community. I still believe in Bartlesville and, bless its heart, what I often tease as Joklahoma. Right now it feels like Broklahoma, but I’m ready and willing to stay and work on fixing it.

A final lesson

How about you? Are you willing to roll up your sleeves and work to change our miserable politics? On my last day in the classroom I shared something with my last batch of students; something I hoped they might take with them.

I shared with them a few stories from my life. I spoke of a few times that I was unhappy with my circumstances or my prospects, and how I dealt with them. This was to teach them a lesson life has taught me:

You seldom get what you want by complaining, by posting about things on Facebook or clicking a Like button, by giving up on the system, or by breaking the rules. Instead, you must become the change you want. You must invest yourself in the system and work from within to change it. Bring something to the table, be willing to listen, and be willing to work. Don’t give up on voting, but also don’t just vote; organize and campaign. Don’t disengage; entangle yourself. Don’t break things; build them better. You’ll be surprised at how much you can accomplish if you are willing to work.

So how about you? Are you willing to join us and work for a better Oklahoma?

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