Friday, October 22, 2010

jungle beach party

We dropped off our stuff in the little bungalow duplex and wandered back to a thatched roof restaurant. There were about eight tables, but only two had lights on above them. One was populated by four middle-aged guys from Orange County, so we seated ourselves at the other. We were completely exhausted and equally ravenous. There seemed to be only one guy working. He brought us our drinks: I had a local beer and Deb had a mango smoothie. The food was delicious, and not just because we hadn't eaten all day, it really was quite tasty. We devoured our meal and tipped generously (we think). Then we made our way back to the room with the help of our tiny flashlight and promptly passed out.

I don't know what time we woke up the next day and that was a welcome and wonderful change. We didn't have a flight to catch. We didn't have to drive 100 miles to our next destination. We didn't even have the pressure of making the most of our day. We were here for three whole nights and it was time to relax. We went to the restaurant and ordered two American breakfasts. We were still too dazed to worry about eating authentic cuisine; I wanted eggs and bacon, but mostly I wanted coffee. And really, what's most authentically Costa Rican than coffee?

Today we were going to the beach. We packed a bag and put on our brand new bathing suits. We had to make certain to pack out sandals and wear shoes because the trail to the beach stretched a mile through the rain forest. We were well-rested, we were excited to be in a new country with an exotic ecosystem, we were fueled by bacon and coffee, and we were on our way.

We went through a gate in the fence on the edge of the resort and we were immediately enveloped by the jungle. Huge leaves bordered the trail, while others hung overhead blocking the sunlight with their giant fronds. The towering trees were wrapped haphazardly with vines and giant blue butterflies the size of birds darted through the few rays of sunlight that the thick canopy of foliage allowed. Suddenly, I saw a long upright tail moving through the brush, the end curled slightly. Was it a monkey? We'd only been in the forest for a few minutes and we already had our first large mammal sighting. As it emerged from the brush, we saw that it wasn't a monkey. It wasn't a tapir. And I was quickly running out of rainforest animals that I was familiar with. It looked like a cross between a possum, a raccoon, and a monkey. We would later learn that it was a pizote (or coati, in English). It scampered off into the jungle.

I noticed some movement on the ground and bent over to see several dozen leaf-cutter ants marching in a line across the trail. I could tell they were leaf-cutter ants because they were each carrying a huge piece of leaf. They diligently made their way from one side of the trail to the other before disappearing back into the jungle. A line of unladen ants made their way in the opposite direction, past their burdened brethren, as they headed back for more leaves. We learned to keep an eye out for such processions as they criss-crossed, back and forth, along the length of the trail. At each of the many crossings, the ants had carved out small trenches with their years of harvesting.

As we made our way through the forest, we kept our eyes open and watched our step.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

gypsy cab, plane, plane, taxi, bus, taxi

We got to JFK in record time. At one point, I think the driver was doing 80 on Atlantic Avenue, barreling down the empty black street, hitting all the lights perfectly. We had to arrive two hours prior to our departure, but I was starting to imagine the news reports about the car accident in my head. I asked him to slow down. He did so gladly and I tipped him $5. It had only taken 15 minutes from our door to the airport's curbside drop-off point—shattering all previous records.

The rest of the city was still asleep, but the airport bustled. We waited in some lines, took off our shoes, and showed some people in uniform our documents. The next thing we knew we were in Costa Rica. Deb and I tried to catch some zzzzs on our two flights and we'd maybe gotten a couple hours between us. Once we got there, we waited in some extra lines: immigration and customs. We were approved as tourists by rubber stamps and hopped into a taxi to the bus station.

In the hazy, sleepiness of the new day, the culture shock of being in another country takes on a dreamlike quality. The billboards are all in Spanish, people seem to drive differently, more aggressively, the air is thicker, and the plants are foreign and tropical. I was fading in and out as our driver manuevered through the narrow streets in the city center. There were lots of colorful, gated storefronts on both sides of our speeding taxi. We arrived at the bus station, and Deb used her mastery of the Spanish language to secure us a couple bus tickets and the next leg of today's journey.

I remember lush, green hills and getting a Coca-Cola at a small market in the mountains. After minutes turned into hours, our bus ride eventually ended. Deb got us a ride with a local cabbie who knew our destination. "You know Jack?" he asked. No, but we were keen to meet the innkeeper.

More green blurs and intermittent naps ensued. And as the last light of day was fading to grey, we climbed, at long last, out of the cab and into our little oasis of jungle paradise.

long day's journey into vegas

America is a big place. Don't let no one tell you different. Other countries, like Belgium, are very little and can be driven across in under an hour. But not America.

Not only is America big, but due to it's immenseness there are stretches where there is little to less. Homes are intermittent, towns are tiny and founded in the 1980s, and businesses close up early. 9pm on a weeknight may as well be 3am. Even the gas stations get boarded up when the sun goes down. Sure, they may have lotto, guns, ammo and beer—heck, they even have diesel. But we cannot wait until dawn for such amenities.

So we drive on, into the night, until we cross the border into Utah and find a largish town with an all-night gas station. We fuel up and make it all the way back to Las Vegas; heading straight back to the Sahara. During the drive we talked about our last big night in Vegas, but we quickly trade those plans for a cozy bed and a good night's sleep.

The next day we head out. Deb buys us breakfast at In & Out Burger while I get gas. We turn in our bug-splattered economy car and fly back to Brooklyn for our first visit home since our trip began. We thought we'd get to sleep in our own bed, but we didn't set foot in the apartment until 11pm. Then we called a cab to pick us up at 4:30am. It's better to stay up all night, showering, printing directions, and packing a fresh set of clothes, than to oversleep and miss our early morning flight to Costa Rica.

Now where did we put those passports?

book your cabin today

During our trip we've asked a lot of people to please take our picture. It's the top button on the right. It should focus automatically. Thank you so much. But the guy who took the above photo was the only one who helped direct. He took two standard shots. "That's boring," he said, "Kiss her!" We thank him for the above result.

We made our way up, found a couple chairs at the lodge, and settled in to watch the sunset. We wrote postcards and I took a series of photos in the fading light. There was a long row of chairs lined up on a large stone patio that overlooked the Canyon. The foursome of two couples next to us chatted at length about their grown kids graduating college. Our patio was bordered by two cliffside cabins on the left and an enclosed a circular room, that was part of the lodge, on the right. It was an indoor area from which to watch the canyon from comfy leather sofas, the winds held at bay with huge floor-to-ceiling windows. On the other side of the enclosure was another patio that faced west. This place got increasingly crowded as the sun sank lower and the lodge's brick facade turned golden. The place buzzed with digital cameras trying to capture the moment. I took a few picture myself and began chatting with some white-haired ladies who were on a bus tour of the southwest.

They told me about their trip and I told them about ours. They were a bit surprised by the scope our trip but very encouraging of our impromptu traveling. "Why wait until your hair is white to see the world? Do it while you're young."

When I walked back to the car to get a blanket for Deb I weaved in and out of the the tiny log cabins. Older couples sat together, smiling, and waving hello. I returned to the patio and Deb and I watched the light disappear. I asked a man who was enjoying the view from the best cabin, it's deck perched on the edge of the canyon, when he made the reservation. He told me a year-and-a-half and that it was totally worth it. So there's a travel suggestion for those who like breathtaking views and planning ahead.

We drove away and headed north in the darkness. We stopped for dinner at Jacob Lake Inn, a bustling place that was packed to the gills with customers. We sat on the corner of the counter between two older couples and we all traded travel stories while we waited for the harried waitress. Both couples were from different parts of Georgia and they told us tales of their Southwest travels and their many run-ins with European tourists.

After gassing up and heading out we almost hit two deer in the first five minutes. I slowed down and kept my brights on. Two near misses make you a tad gun-shy and your eyes start to concoct shapes that aren't there. As I came around the bend, something seemed off about the black road, and before the shape could congeal into a recognizable object I was swerving around a big black cow nursing it's calf in the middle of road. I could see the pink udder in the darkness as we flew by, and a few details of the suckling calf. Then the tender scene disappeared in a blink and we continued into the night.

north rim v. south rim

The experience driving toward the Vermilion Cliffs was amazing, trying to take in the scope of one's surroundings. After crossing the fledgling Colorado River, the drive alongside the cliff's colorful face was awe-inspiring. Then we came to a pull-off for something called the Cliff Dwellers. The roadside was populated by giant stones the size of cars, many of them precariously balanced forever on a smaller rock. They seemed to defy logic and gravity and as I explored them close-up, dipping my head under an impossible mass that had to fall someday, I sincerely hoped they would remain upright a few moments more.

There were women selling handmade jewelry in front of one of them and the remnants of an ancient brick home built into another. It took something pretty astounding to distract from the expanse of our scenic surroundings, but the otherworldly rocks, suspended in disbelief, were worth stopping for. I said a silent prayer for Wile E. Coyote and we headed toward the Grand Canyon's North Rim.

As with the South Rim, the route to the North Rim is a straight line. One road, running north and south, that goes to the edge and back. But the area around the North Rim isn't as built up as the South Rim. The South Rim is closer to big cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix and gets a lot more visitors. The South Rim has an IMAX movie and busloads of European tourists, the North Rim has a rustic lodge surrounded by dozens of tiny log cabins, each one populated by polite retirees. And at 8,000 ft, the North Rim has 1,000 ft higher altitude than it's southern neighbor.

We parked near the cabins and walked along a narrow pathway that takes you far out onto a ledge. There were guide rails and a strong chain link fence (it would be a black eye for the parks department if too many visitors plummeted to their deaths in the canyon) so we held on tight, braced against the wind and enjoyed the view.

It's difficult to write about the Grand Canyon and try to provide a description that begins do to being there justice. You can try to do the sight justice by taking a photograph, but the results always look sad and flat by comparison. The tiny photo shares little of the experience of standing on the canyon's edge. Well, my digital camera takes little movies, so this should do the trick.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Grand Canyon in all its glory:

Monday, October 18, 2010

west to the vermillion cliffs

I woke up at 5am bathed in sweat. The heat had clicked on with a vengeance and we were fully clothed under several beds worth of blankets. I opened the front door wide and let the cold, fresh air rush in along with several more moths. I guess this was why we weren't supposed to mess with the thermostat. Tomorrow was going to include a lot of driving and I desperately needed sleep. I cursed the Anasazi, an entire Native American tribe's good name was now sullied in my mind due to this destitute, roadside flophouse. I futilely tried to fluff my filthy pillow but it just made it lumpier.

The night was long and far too short. The next day came too quickly. We drug ourselves out of our uncomfortable bed and got the hell out of there. We'd gotten pretty savvy at packing in a hurry during our first week of travel. Then we double-checked under everything, aware that if we accidentally left something behind we may have to return to this awful place.

The day was bright and beautiful and we fueled up with coffee and gas at a tribal post. Two dogs sat panting in the shade of the front porch flanking the market's front door like the New York Public Library's stoic lions: Patience and Fortitude. We hit the road. Our final destination was the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. But we'd be taking an out of the way route that would send us past the Vermilion Cliffs. Traveling the Four Corners region is like navigating Middle Earth. Lots of colorfully descriptive and ominous sounding place names.

We ate at a Subway in a town called Page. Deb sat with her back to the parking lot. Halfway through the meal a bus pulled up and teenagers started pouring out, heading our way en masse. "Europeans," I whispered to Deb and nodded in the direction of the door as the tiny restaurant filled with the tour group. "Das est not eine Burger King," said one in a thick accent that I'll say was Swiss. We made a quick exit as blonde teens continued to file in and got back on the road.

We first saw the Vermilion Cliffs after the road was narrowed by high rocks on both sides. The road curved round a small bend with 30-foot canyon walls of rock on both sides. As we came out the other side we realized we were on the top of a huge mesa and could see for miles looking down across the valley floor. Across the valley, far in the distance lay the Vermilion Cliffs, and in between was the fissured floor of the valley. Within the fissure lay the Colorado River and the easternmost beginning of the Grand Canyon.

professional driver on closed course

We had spent the previous night sleeping a few hours in the car. Now Deb and I flew down the highway on the way to our reservation at the Anasazi Inn, just shy of Tuba City. I think I've failed to mention in this blog so far that Deb doesn't drive. She doesn't even have a license. This is not a problem in Brooklyn. We walk, we take the subway, we walk some more. Occasionally, we even take a cab (mostly to the airport). The walking has been a bit tricky for me lately as my knees are hurting from a lingering injury. But my problem in New York City is stairs, stairs are my nemesis. Since we've been away from NYC I haven't needed to take the stairs much as most of the country seems to be one-story. Walking seems to be good for my knees. I walk slow and deliberately and keep my eyes peeled for elevators. But I digress.

I like driving. I hate commuting, but driving on desert highways is a lot of fun. It's like living in a car commercial, the ones that warn you not to attempt such scenic by-ways. Driving such roads is less enjoyable at night namely because of all the jacked up pick-ups cresting the road's horizon and blinding you with the force of four headlights. I like to drive with my brights on and as you see the edges of an oncoming car's brights nearing the bend in the road, you dip yours and they dip theirs. It's one of the last polite exchanges left on the highway.

The other singular thing about driving down a desert highway is the sheer volume of bugs that end up on your windshield. Our Hyundai got good mileage but I'd pull over at gas stations just to scrub the bugs off the windshield. At night you could see them, moths mostly, about fifty feet out flying toward you in a slow, deliberate spiral as the car sped forward. Their fate seems inevitable, so rarely do they manage to swoop up and avoid it. The moths come spinning towards you, looming large and white before exploding on the windshield like a cheap, tiny firework. The desert is a cruel, unforgiving place.

We got to the Anasazi Inn and checked in. Our room was not in the main building that faced the highway: the standard roadside motel design, one long building split into a string of tiny rooms. We drove around back and discovered that our room was in a duplex trailer. There was a row of trailers surrounded by tall weeds. Our trailer's exterior was lit by a single bulb that was swarming with moths. Our key didn't work and we failed to take the warning and foolishly got another key. Once inside, we started taking a sad inventory of this dump. The floors were stained, the wood paneling was peeling from the walls, the pillows were dirty and lumpy, the place was freezing, and moths populated every light source.

The showerhead had about 50 holes, but only 6 of them let water through, making each one a tiny liquid laser that stung the skin. The bed's springs were worn down and the bed sloped to the middle and my feet hung over the edge. Now Deb and I ain't fancy folks, we don't require luxury accomodations, silk undergarments, or fancy fineries. But when the room costs $109, it shouldn't look like it cost $29. We thought about our fancy room in Chicago that we got for the bargain rate of $115. We covered one bed with all the comforters and ignored a handwritten sign asking us not to turn up the heat. We went to bed fully dressed, sincerely hoping we would survive till morning and not get murdered by drifters.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

beneath the valley of the gods

When we were looking for a place to stay near Monument Valley, the closest town seemed to be Gouldings. But once we got there we realized that Goulding's was less of a town and more a mini-resort, an extension of an old trading post complete with an ancient storage shed that was used as John Wayne's cabin in "The Searchers." The tiny town also boasts an area high school and an airfield.

We ate lunch at their dining hall and were ravenous by the time we arrived. Deb got a Navajo Taco and I got the chili (with green chilies) and both orders came with delicious fry bread; very flaky, oily, and crisp. The enormous taco was built like a tostada and covered the whole plate. The green chili was plentiful and quite spicy. It burned with a lingering hotness that spread down the throat and required some fry bread to extinguish. We ate very little only because we hadn't eaten in so long and took the rest to go.

We headed north toward the Valley of the Gods.
(That's really fun to say. Go ahead, try it.)

We got onto Highway 261 just north of Goosenecks State Park and took the road toward the Valley of the Gods. But the sun was low in the sky and there was a massive mesa, just a mighty wall of earth, that the sun was slowly slipping behind. If we kept going we could move to higher ground and keep the day alive. The Valley of the Gods was very pretty. But with a name like that, it raises your expectations a bit high. Or perhaps it is more impressive if you see it before you experience Monument Valley. We got back on the narrowing northbound highway which soon began warning us about the road ahead.

The ominous road signs came fast and furious: No Trailers Allowed, 10% Grade, Narrow Roadway, Unpaved Sections. We were all alone on the road and sheathed in shade. Behind us, the valley glowed orange in the fading, evening light. As the pavement disappeared from beneath us, the road suddenly became very steep and we started up. I could almost hear the clicking of the rollercoaster as we climbed the roadway. The floor of the valley began to drop. Each time we'd round another hairpin corner, the valley below had sunk another 100 feet. We quickly got a sense of how high up we were and realized that the nearby edge of the gravel road was also the edge of the sheer cliff's drop. The road was all switchbacks and no guardrails, so we crept slowly upwards, hugging the inside whenever possible while trying to absorb the dizzying view.

At the top (an elevation of over 6,400 feet) we parked the car and looked out over the valley, finally able to take it all in without fear of rolling over the side. We'd been at the bottom only minutes before and it was dark. Now the sun shone brightly and we cast our long shadows over the cliff. As we drove away, I noticed the wreckage of an unlucky truck that had gone over the edge and lay mangled on a rocky ledge below. There must have been no way to retrieve the truck's shell and so it remains there as a reminder to respect the roadway.

We drove north as the sky blackened until we joined up with a bigger highway then headed back south. Along the way we stopped on the side of the road one last time to look up at the giants of Monument Valley. With the light of the moon behind them, the butte's mighty silhouettes stood out starkly against the pale night. We stood there in the darkness on the side of the highway and basked in their otherworldly beauty. How could the people who lived in this valley 200 years ago have worshipped anything else?

Deb had made us a reservation at a place we'd passed the night while heading east. So although we knew at this point that we had a place to stay, we had no idea how much we'd soon miss the comforts of our Hyundai Elantra.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

a horse with no name

The way Deb and figured it, we'd saved a bit of money by sleeping in our rental car the night before, so why not spend it on something unforgettable: a horseback ride through Monument Valley. Trouble was we only had $66 cash and it was $40 each for a half hour. We talked to a couple Navajo guides who gave tours and rather than drive all the way out and back on an ATM run, we gave them every dollar we had for a quick 20 minute ride.

We saddled up and headed toward Camel Butte, our guide leading the way, followed closely by Deb, and bringing up the rear: me on my very slow and deliberate horse. I didn't really mind the leisurely pace as I was trying to take in the scope and grandeur of our surroundings. And every time I gave the horse a little smack with the whip I found out why cowboys didn't wear Adidas warm-up pants. So slow and steady was fine with me.

As we neared the massive butte, the terrain went from gradual slope to steep incline quickly and I suddenly became very aware that I wasn't wearing a helmet. I'd taken Deb horseback riding a few years ago in Prospect Park and we'd worn helmets. But there was no time for reminiscing now as the horse made his way up the hill toward the base of the butte and I leaned forward and held on. As the horses made their way along the base of Camel Butte—a wall of rock on the right and the cliff edge on the left—Deb and I each had to do some fancy manuevering as not to get crunched by a narrow passage between two boulders. We got to the lookout at the base of the Camel and looked out.

The site of the Valley from such as unique vantage point combined with the adrenaline now coursing through my veins, combined with the lack of sleep or food, made for an almost overwhelming experience. I had one priority now: don't fall off the horse.

When I saw the cliff's edge I was certain that we'd be following it along the ridge until we found a more gradual way down. Instead we were going straight over it. The horse had done this a hundred times before. He knew the way down. I knew that. So I leaned back in the saddle, held on to the horn and talked soothingly to this slow, cautious horse that I sincerely hoped would not fall over and crush me against a rock. "You're my favorite horse," I told him, meaning every word.

When we got back I realized that I didn't have any money left to tip our guide. So I gave him my lucky $2 bill hidden within my wallet. We walked shakily away and slowly made our way out of Monument Valley. Having filled our souls with nature's majesty, we headed across the highway to fill our bellies with spicy southwestern cuisine.

big monuments & tiny snakes

We woke up tired and achy from sleeping in the car and headed to The View hotel to buy breakfast. It was a breakfast buffet that had been sitting out for hours (it was also $13). So we had some terrible coffee instead and I kept my eyes pointed at the ground as much as I could. I didn't want my memories of a place as spectacular as Monument Valley to be seen through the panoramic window of a massive gift shop. We exited slowly, got into the Hyundai, and drove down into Monument Valley. Being in the Valley is even more impressive than overlooking it and your perspective changes from the grandeur of the overall scope of the area to the reality of being surrounded by such towering, impossible rock formations.

The road into the Valley is dusty, steep, uneven, and unforgiving. But we were in a rental, and I'd gotten the insurance, so you drive deliberately and be thankful it's not raining. Part of me really wanted to get a convertible for our southwest roadtrip. The more practical part of me concluded that we'd get char-broiled by the desert sun and covered in dust the color of Burnt Sienna. Plus, all those people driving through the desert in a convertible (in movies that romanticize driving through the desert in a convertible) usually have the mob, the cops, or both in hot pursuit.

Monument Valley is a place where it is difficult to keep your camera in it's case for more than 30 seconds. Every 50 feet I was stopping the car and hopping out to take another photo of the massive mesas—the orange and red rocks against the cobalt blue sky. Every time you move the shadows change and the camera comes out again. There's almost a desperation on your part to try and get what you're seeing into the camera, to capture it for posterity.

The previous night we could only make out the faintest black shadow of the mesas against the dark, starry night. You could sense their presence, but couldn't make them out in detail. Now they were everywhere, surrounding you and dotting the horizon in every direction. Every John Ford western you ever saw, every memory of a Roadrunner cartoon suddenly flooded with personal context. Much like standing on the edge of Grand Canyon overwhelms the senses, the experience of being in Monument Valley short circuits something and your brain must rush to catch up with the sensory overload taking place.

We pull over so I can take some more pictures and we see a couple staring at something in the brush by the side of the road. There is a baby snake coiled near some brush and a thin German man with a camera is bent over at the waist, staring intently at it; his feet a safe distance away, his face inching closer. "Do you zhink it is a rattlesnake?" he asks, "I don't hear anyzhing." The snake is very small, tightly coiled, and in the shadows, but it could be a rattler so I keep my distance and advise caution. Even a small rattler has venom, right? I decide I need a photo, but the digital buzzing startles the snake and it slithers under the bush, it's tiny rattle shaking as it goes. I decide it's wiser to stay on the road, then proceed to take several dozen more photos. I drive 100 feet, then hop out to take a few more.

Deb and I decide to take the remainder of our cash (which was about $66) and see how long of a horseback ride we could get. What we didn't yet realize that it's not the length of the ride that's important; it's the angle.