Part 3: Bluff to Zion NP via Chicago and other places

My trip is still going well. It's been five weeks since my departure, I have driven about 4000 miles so far, and haven't even made it to the Pacific yet.

Since my last email I hiked and drove through the Arches, Canyonlands and Natural Bridges parks in Utah. Some pictures from Arches (e.g. from a nasty hailstorm I got caught in) are online, but Canyonlands can't really be captured on film - the landscape is too vast (and the days were too bright) for pictures. They are simply spectacular. Next up was Monument Valley in the Navajo reservation in Arizona. It is quite overwhelming, and pictures hardly do it justice (especially the ones I took on a rainy day). Some of you may remember the poster of it that hung in my kitchen. Yes, it's just rocks and desert, but unlike any other setting I have ever seen.

From there I drove to the Grand Canyon, which is grand indeed, and includes a number of sidecanyons. I hiked from the rim down into the canyon, not all the way to the Colorado river (which would be an overnight trip), but at least to a vantage point that had great views in all directions and of the river, which is not even visible from the rim. In contrast to mountain hiking here you descend first, and have lunch when you're not really tired yet. But it's a good way to escape the crowds, which even in October are sizable.

The next stop was Phoenix (or rather Tempe where a friend of mine is at Arizona State). Several cloudless days with temperatures above 90F/33C sound nice, but it rather limits the time you want to spend outside, and also your energy level in general. But after a week of hiking in the backwoods I didn't mind a few days of just hanging out, and -being a college town- Tempe has all the cafes, bookstores and bars you'd need for that. Otherwise both Tempe and Phoenix are unremarkable (and everyone was still griping about the Diamondbacks losing in the playoffs). The Heard museum has interesting exhibits on the early history of the peoples of the Southwest; it's not far from downtown Phoenix, but once again the temperature made me use the car. I can easily imagine this part of the world not being popular before the invention of air conditioning.

Planning my side trip to Chicago (where I wanted to meet up with my sister who was running the marathon) I decided to fly from Las Vegas, and took leave from Arizona. Chicago is a great place, plenty of things to see and do, and has one of the few great waterfronts in the US. Of course I needed some sweaters and jackets -which was a first on this trip- because the City decided to live up to its reputation for being Windy. I took some time to check out the Alumni Club where I'd been a couple years earlier on a memorable evening (think 'Coyote Ugly' with bachelorette parties instead of bartenders), but nothing like that was going on at this time. But my sister finished the marathon, although she was a couple hours behind a new world record time. Oh well, there's always room for improvement.

After a few days she moved on to Toronto, and I headed back to Las Vegas ("Veyges" I guess is the way to pronounce it according to 'Swingers'), this time to stay and explore the city. Though sizable, only one street is really of interest - Las Vegas Boulevard aka The Strip where all the major casinos are located.

Although the casinos operate on a 24 hour basis, it doesn't really get interesting until 9pm or so in terms of people playing and money wagered. To walk the strip by daylight when all the signs are turned off is downright depressing - at every corner you realize that you're in the middle of a desert, where undeveloped parcels of land still consist of sand and desert vegetation. Without the water available from Hoover Dam/Lake Mead the place would still be a train station between Salt Lake City and LA, and nothing else.

Having been to Venice/Italy not too long ago, I was curious to check out The Venetian casino which features all that city's landmarks, including a canal with gondolas and singing gondolieris (of which I hadn't seen a single one in the real place). What makes the copy perfect is the degree and amount of tourism going on. But in a Mexican restaurant within the casino I discovered a heavenly drink -Mojito-, which the bar guide I have on my computer unfortunately doesn't know about; I'll need to look that up on the web. (Postscript: Thanks to Astrid for getting me the recipe. The main ingredients are rum, lime juice, sugar, mint and soda water). Overall I liked the themes of other casinos better (e.g. the New York New York which I actually left with a win :-), but there are so many themes to choose from that everybody should be able to find something they like. I managed to lose only $100 over two nights of gambling, which is nothing if you figure in hours of entertainment and free drinks. On top of that my stay at one of the lesser casinos was one of the most inexpensive I've had so far, and the room was actually quite nice.

Back in Utah -this time the SW corner- I stopped at Zion Canyon. The walls here are rising up so steep and tall that they dominate everything within the canyon. Most of the trails are not for anyone even remotely afraid of heights. Moving on to Bryce Canyon, I dropped by at Cedar Breaks National Monument, which I hadn't heard of before, but which a fellow hiker recommended. Not much to hike or do, just to see, but quite a view it is. And, being a cool 6000 feet higher than Zion, I encountered the first snow on my trip, and a chilly wind to go with it. A reminder that I probably won't get to do much more outdoor stuff, especially as I'm headed much further up North soon. I did some mild sightseeing in Bryce today, and will do serious hiking tomorrow, before I drive on to Salt Lake City.

Postscript: I can reaffirm the well-known statistic that, despite one out of five people being Chinese, while traveling, one out of three is German - they're everywhere, lots of them! OK, so you already knew that. But this time around they seemed less obnoxious ... not sure if I've become more tolerant, or if they're better behaved abroad these days. You be the judge of that.




TripPrologue - TripPart1 - TripPart2 - TripPart4 - TripPart5 - TripPart6 - TripEpilogue - Photos