TEXAS!

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Texas is a big state and we had to cross it to get where we were going. We have been through Texas before. Dick’s brother Dan lived in Fort Davis, Texas in a mountain range that reminded me of California and we visited him there in 2010. We drove the length of the panhandle and we made a stop in Lubbock to visit a colleague there before continuing to Fort Davis. Last year we began our trip south by driving to Galveston and we stayed there a week after a side trip close enough to Dallas to meet with colleagues there. So we had travelled the length of the west side and the middle from north to south. This time we had no agenda, we just need to get through Texas to the other side.

We left Albuquerque New Mexico and began the trip east on the I40 interstate. (Just in case you are wondering I40 east starts with some big steep hills climbing over 2000 feet to the mountain pass but we had no issues making the climb. The road was never a grade about about 6% and at every hill there were extra passing lanes so we could go as slowly as we need to. The total climb occurs over about 15 miles.) Our goal was Lake McLelland Recreation Area which is a National Forest campground. We found out about this spot by consulting the free and low cost campground website which has a wide variety of places suitable for both boon docking and staying cheaply. The site lists everything from welcoming Walmarts, to truck parking lots in remote areas where boon docking RVs are also welcome, to free municipal campgrounds, to all kinds of other campgrounds that charge $15 or less to stay.

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This part of Texas is what you expect if you’ve ever seen old cowboy movies. It is miles and miles of flat bushland and desert punctuated by the occasional oil rig. One of the new dominant items in the region of miles and miles and miles of huge windmills. I have never seen so many windmills. I have mixed feeling about windmills because they are considered “green energy” by those who accept the idea of anthropogenic climate change and the harm they think it will inflict on the earth. Yet these things are certain death to birds, bats and butterflies that get in their way. Their presence means that animals who have evolved to require wide sky no longer feel welcome. The windmills have seriously damaged populations of such creatures like the prairie grouse. The other thing that bothers me about windmills is the power they provide is intermittent. The day we were traveling there was no wind and these great structures were still as far as the eye could see. Because of this, windmills must have coal, natural gas or hydro electric back ups equalling their capacity for days when there is no wind. They are unreliable. This means windmills are generally not financially feasible without massive government subsidies and that means higher taxes, and higher utilities costs to consumers. To me they are great twirling white elephants, a passing fad, that will eventually result in rusting dead hulks spread all over the prairies when the fad passes.

We pulled into the Lake McLelland campground after dark. When we awoke in the morning it was a huge disappointment. The place was falling apart. The trees were twisted and mostly dead. There was a lot of blackened debris. The washrooms were perfectly clean around the toilets and the sinks but everywhere else there were bird nests, insect nests and other wildlife that had moved inside due to multiple chunks of missing roof and broken windows. There was also natural debris and garbage piled in every corner. When we started filling our tank to shower, our faucet spewed everywhere like a fire hydrant on loco weed. It was cracked on two sides down its length. The electric posts were similarly damaged. We walked around the campsite looking for a better spot. We like to stay two nights at each campground, one day to travel, one day to recover and enjoy the area. We could not find a site better than the one we were already in. Worse for us, I awoke wheezing and my husband had developed a nagging cough and eye irritation. While looking for a better spot, I spoke to one of the other campers who was a local from the area. He told me that the area had suffered devastating wildfires and severe storms that summer. I hope they fix the place up but we decided to move along that day instead of staying two nights.

 

Our second stop was at the Lake Arrowhead State Park. The drive was amazing. No more flat prairie; we now went up and down through gently rolling hills. The new campsite was a considerable improvement over Lake McClellan. The park was well kept and the bathrooms were clean although they could have used a coat of fresh paint. We saw a lot of big fat Texas size gophers, the big ones as big as our cat, which the locals called prairie dogs. They were comical and charming. They would pop up and chirp at us with their short tails up like a white tailed deer. If you approached them they vanish down their holes only to pop up behind us at another hole and chirp at us again. Misty tried several times to catch one but the prairie dogs easily defeated her. I could see they were playing with her and finding her gullibility amusing. Fred, being older and wiser, just ignored them. We saw several family groups consisting of a mom and half a dozen or more fat babies. These groups moved in big herds of dozens seeking grass further from their holes and if someone chirped everyone ran for home. I saw a big raptor who had a lot more luck than Misty and made off with a fat one for lunch.

We had hoped to go canoeing but it was far too windy. The lake was covered with white caps even in the quiet bay of the swim areas. Temperatures soared into the 80s (28C) so that we had to use the air conditioning in the trailer for a brief time in the afternoon. In addition to gophers and raptors there were many other birds. We saw familiar white pelicans from home, chickadees and thrashers in great numbers in addition to many other birds we were not familiar with in their winter plumage. The campground also had a small pump jack which had begun pumping oil before the establishment of the state park and it is still pumping today. It stank of sweet crude and thumped and bumped and made grinding noises around the clock so we were careful to pick a campsite far away among the prairie dogs. They were quiet at night.

We left the next morning for Bonham State park. We had planned to go farther but we had a flat tire just outside of Nocona, Texas. There was a lot of construction and it was slow going with frequent trips on the shoulder. We must have hit a nail or something. We were lucky because the tire did not blow out. It slowly deflated and then the tire flew off as we drove on the rim unaware. A farmer and his wife flagged us down and we stopped just inside town, astounded to see the damage we hadn’t felt.

Our only warning was I heard a funny metallic noise about a mile from Nocoma and I said to Dick “I hear something funny.”

He replied, “So close the window.”

I did and the noise went away so I stopped worrying about that funny noise until the farmer and his wife flagged us down. I must learn not to defer to Dick. Next time I hear a funny noise we stop and check.

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We called CAA from Nocoma and they had someone there within forty minutes to change the tire. The folks there were so kind and helpful that Nocoma is now my absolute favourite part of Texas. We had the best southern style pecan pie I ever had at the Texas BBQ just down the street from the hardware store across the street from where our injured rig was parked in the heart of Trump country.

 

A retired police officer gave Dick a lift to Mike’s, the tire store six blocks away on the other side of town. After the CAA guy changed our tire to our spare, the nice folks at Mike’s cleaned up and repaired the rim and mounted a new tire for us at a very modest charge. We were on way in under three hours. Still, we were behind schedule and Bonham was close enough that we were able to get there before sunset.

 

I am so glad we did! Bonham was a really nice state park and I was struck by how varied Texas is. In two stops we had come from a rather barren nasty desert to a lush green swamp cypress groves and mixed southern deciduous oaks, maples, magnolias and sycamores. A cold front came through so that the daytime high barely reached 40F (4C). In spite of the lovely little reservoir/lake we decided to forego canoeing again. This time it was just too cold. We did walk around the lake on the lovely trail. The highlight was when we came up to a big tree and we startled dozens, maybe even hundreds, of black vultures. We were right up close to them when they saw us and then took off. The thunder of their wings was wonderful. They are such huge birds and in a weird ugly way, absolutely magnificent.

We were going to go straight east to go over the top of Louisiana. The forecast was for more cold weather and even the possibility of snow. We decided to go south first instead of east. This also allowed us to travel through some new territory we hadn’t seen before. We got to travel the east Texas lakes and forest areas on our way to Brookeland Texas.

Our original plan was to stay at the Army Corps of Engineer campsite at Mill Creek. However we found out on arrival that during the winter they have no mechanism for accepting cash payments. You can only stay if you have reservations made in advance. We tried telephoning but could not get through to their reservation system and we did not have internet access. So we checked into the nearby Brookeland’s KOA. After days of no sewer hookup or internet we really appreciated having full hook ups and WIFI. We did our laundry and got all caught up on our email and planned more of our trip. Imagine our surprise to wake to a sunny warm day but snow everywhere. It was two inches of the kind of fast melting light snow we often see in October and April back home in Manitoba. For Texans and other southerners it was both a rare and wonderful delight and a nightmare. Folks down here don’t know how to drive in light snow. Schools were closed and children were out trying to make their first snowman and snow ball. The snow had quit where we were and the roads were already dry but road reports and weather forecast said that snow was going to fall all day in eastern Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. After some internet searching and with the help of my absolute favourite websites RV Parks Review we found a National Forest campground in Louisiana not far from Alexandria outside the snow area. We left Texas heading east through the lovely heavily rolling hills east of Brookeland.

I came away with yet another impression of Texas. Texas is huge. Texas is varied in both climate and topography and demanding of those who live there. Most important, Texans are generally big hearted and ready to help strangers. It is a place rich in resources and one of its greatest resources is its people. It is as broad and big as the Texas twang they speak with. I could be happy living in Texas, especially in the south east where it is lush and green, even in winter. Of course, since I don’t tolerate heat over 80F (27C) willingly, I’d have to go somewhere else for summer, like Manitoba.

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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History, Albuquerque NM

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One of the unused casings for the “fat man” bomb, identical to one dropped on Nagasaki. The history of the bomb is a combination of the best and worst the human mind can produce. The museum presented both sides. In addition to the work and ingenuity of the scientists and engineers, there were sobering pictures of how Nagasaki looked after the “fat man” land. 

We are not “museum” people but we did enjoy out trip to the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History. The museum covers the history of the atomic bomb from conception through to the end of the cold war. Included in the museum are fun exhibits designed to teach children basic concepts of physics. The children we saw ranged in age from toddlers to teens and they all seemed to be enjoying it.

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Display of how bits of black metal can be easily separated from beige coloured sand using a magnet. This was an example of the displays designed to demonstrate to children concepts such as how a centrifuge works. This was then linked to displays about how uranium is purified to make the compound needed for the bomb.

We met up with one of Dick’s old acquaintances, Jan Hauser, and he joined us. (If any of you have seen the movie Jurassic Park, you may recall the evil computer programmer who releases the dinosaurs. That character was based in part on Jan but he’s actually a very nice fellow who would not ever let dinosaurs loose.)  Dick and his friend had their own direct experiences being mentored by men mentioned in the museum or who knew people in the museum. This gave me a more personal perspective. It also made me understand how well done the museum is because my husband and his friend would spot something and then it would trigger memories and a discussion. More than once they would look at some old piece of equipment and laugh and share something about actually using it.

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Table of Elements Floor Map – My personal favourite

My personal favourite display was the entrance area had a huge floor tile set that was done up as the table of elements. Being a biochemistry major at one part in my career I had to know all these elements and seeing them spread on the floor was like encountering long lost old friends. Several volunteers were floating around who are always ready to provide more information. Many of them were veterans who lived the era and could provide fascinating stories. Another personal favourite was seeing the interior of a dismantled Jupiter ballistic missile with explanations of all the parts.

One other very nice feature is outside in the lot were a sampling of aeroplanes and other equipment used in the development of the bomb. Overall it was a fascinating trip into the past where we got to see the best of humanities ingenuity at play and the worst of our species in the creation of this most terrible of weapons. The museum was a modest $33 for all three of us to visit which included two senior discounts. We can recommend it! And bring kids.

Aztec Ruins National Monument

IMG_0658After leaving Moab we meandered down to Aztec New Mexico. Our goal was the Aztec Ruins National Monument. There are many of these pueblo ruins in this part of the country but most of them were closed for the winter. This particular site was open. There is also a modest RV campground a short walk from the monument. This allowed us to pull in and then leave our vehicle hitched and walk to the monument.

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The monument itself was nicely laid out. There was a video explaining both the white, scientific and archeological background and the beliefs of the indigenous people about the ruins. I have a friend who tries to explain how white and Native American thinking differs and I was reminded of him. To us, these are abandoned ruins. To the indigenous peoples, these are living homes of their ancestors. There were some fascinating posters explaining all the different tribes in the region. The government maintains the ruins and we saw one fellow carefully restoring crumbling mortar and replacing it with a synthetic water resistant mortar that looks authentic but will protect the ruins. At one point during my training in human genetics I was exposed to many different tribes of North American indigenous peoples and the distinctive genetic markers of each one. So I am guessing this fellow is Navajo by his looks but it felt rude to ask and besides he was busy. He did give us permission to take his picture.

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The pueblo people responsible for this structure are not Aztecs. That was a misnomer from the pioneer days. The structure was built in a short period of time, perhaps 40 years total and then abandoned after 200 years of occupancy for unknown reasons. The ancestors moved along. The ruins were first excavated and then restored in the 20 and 30s.

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There was a central ceremonial chamber used to religious and community meetings that had been fully restored from the information gathered at other sites. We were asked to be quiet and respectful in the place as we explored. The chamber is still used today by indigenous people for religion ceremonies tied to the seasons. We had the place to ourselves so we were able to explore freely. The structure was really fascinating, a double walled outer ring, a lower inner ring below ground with a fire pit and seating around the outside. Two red squares supposedly had logs over them and were used to make a hollow sounding noise when danced on.

I could see how these pueblos would work in the hot climate. Every room was cool and clean. There were many chambers and holes and doorways into rooms, some in excellent shape and some with only crumbling walls. Original wood ceilings were still in place in some rooms.

We left feeling admiration for the ingenuity of the pueblo people, who were apparently not as tall as Dick, but we were puzzled about why they had moved on. No one really knows and only these ruins remain.

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Moab Museum

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Moab has a small museum that is run by volunteers and is open every day. Mondays are free admission. We spent about three hours looking at all the items and it was well worth our time. The museum has sections including this display of local dinosaur fossils. We spent the most time in this section. In addition to the fossils are several information maps showing the boundaries ancient oceans that inundated the region and created the stunning land forms. We enjoyed seeing that special local context.

There is also a fascinating three dimensional map made by a local from balsa wood.

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There was also a detailed section covering the history of mining in the area. The big item was uranium. There was a rush to find and mine uranium from WW2 through the cold war.

There was a very large selection of photographs showing the origin of the town and much of its history. Again it gave us much appreciated context for the fascinating town we had spent the previous week walking around. I particularly enjoyed a video and a section that listed all the movies that have been made into the Moab area. Some of my favourite old westerns were done right here in Moab with the Colorado doubling for other famous rivers like the Rio Grande.

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Finally in the upper floor was a series of works by local artists. Several of the pieces were for sale. The dinosaur pictures were our favourites.

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If you get to Moab I highly recommend taking in this little gem of a museum. We went on a cool windy day when other activities outdoors would have been problematic. Plus Mondays are free.

Moab Daily – Colorado River

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The Moab Daily refers to a stretch of the Colorado river above Moab that is the perfect length for one day travel. Every year many people will arrange to take the Moab daily in a rented boat. Depending on the conditions this stretch has Class 1 to Class 3 rapids. The river is treacherous with undertows and whirlpools and swimming is not recommended. This length of the river also has a nice road that makes up the first 20 or so miles of the La Sal Mountain Loop.

We stopped at various points along the way including this place where two Japanese tourists were waiting for the rest of their party before doing their own Moab Daily run.

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At strategic spots where space allows are several tiny campgrounds. Some are suitable only for tenting. A few places are good enough for a small to medium sized RV or travel trailer. There were some interesting informational signs as well. I never would have thought of pike and wall eye as nuisance invasive fish you need to catch with no limit but here on the Colorado that is exactly what they are.

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The road is narrow and hugs the sides of the canyons. In many places the rock walls are so close they have put reflector tape right on the rock wall so you don’t hit at night.

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For the first six miles out of Moab there is this fabulous parallel bike path, two lanes and paved. This place is a bikers dream and we saw all kinds of people on bikes from professional mountain bikers with incredibly fancy gear to families with toddlers in kiddie seats and little ones on tiny bikes with training wheels.

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The giant boulders are perfect for training in rock climbing and we saw families having lessons and practicing on the big boulders. You can’t help but think that at any moment a new boulder can break free and roll down on you. And everywhere is the canyon with the river below for miles and miles.

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We enjoyed our time following the Colorado River on the Moab Daily. We spent about four hours driving up and back and stopped at various sites along the way. We even got to see the famous beach John Wayne took a wagon train over in the movie Rio Grande. Of course it wasn’t rally the Rio Grande, it was the Colorado. And apparently the Colorado river tastes good too.

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We had one really nice surprise when we got back to town. We took the dogs walking at the Kinsmen park where the Colorado Daily route ends in Moab and we crossed the footbridge. And there we encountered a group of young men preparing for some acrobatic slack lining. This kind of high risk, high fun sport is going on all the time in the Moab area. Even if you don’t feel up to it yourself, you can enjoy some of it vicariously. We certainly did. The slack line folks complained that tight rope walking on their lines took all their concentration and the water skiers passing underneath distracted them and made them fall off so they were left hanging by their harnesses. But the complaints weren’t that serious. It was all in good fun. I have to say that of all the places we visited in the Moab area, the Moab Daily was my favourite.

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La Sal Mountain Loop is Not Good for Old Dogs and Asthmatics.

The La Sal mountain loop is one of those drives just everyone takes on the visit to Moab. The La Sal Mountains are a small row of high mountains that dominate the skyline around Moab. The first part of the trip is to follow the Colorado river through a long and spectacular canyon. You then drive through Castle Valley which climbs steadily upwards. You then turn into the Mahn La Sal National Forest. There are some lovely small lakes and alpine meadows, some campgrounds. You then travel a winding road back down. The high area is in the 11,000ft range. The top of the mountains reaches 12200ft above you. The first part of the drive along the Colorado is a story of its own I’ll post about next time.

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We paused at the entrance to Castle Valley. The roads are being redone and they are closed on weekdays but they are open weekends for us tourists. Much of the Castle Valley road goes through private land including a huge vegetable farm run by the Seventh Days Adventists and there are many signs saying tourists are not welcome. Nonetheless the steep drive up was breathtaking, dominated by the Castle and needle formations. This is the valley many famous westerns were set in.

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As we climbed my ears began to pop. I also became excited. it was fun to climb and climb and climb. We entered the drive into the National Forest and then we really started climb. The road was freshly paved but it had no guard rails and no lines. So it really was sheer cliffs off the side. Plus the climb was so steep the truck was working hard in low gear. These were steep, tight, narrow switch backs. My prairie girl heart was in my throat as I drove.

At last we reached the top and the pavement ran out for the last highest stretch where a dirt road twists past the best of the alpine sights and side roads go off to the lakes and trails. But I was in trouble.

I hate being reminded of my physical limitations but the La Sal mountain loop was once of those days. Honestly, I really should have known better because I have been here before but I was caught up in the excitement of the travel and I forgot I don’t do well at high altitude.The last time I was up at 11,000ft was back in 1993 when I attended a conference in Telluride Colorado. We went through the Rabbit Ears pass. Our car died and Dick went with a kind passerby to get help. I spent a horrible hour lying the car feeling like I was going to die. I was dizzy, nauseous, had a terrible headache, and felt so weak I couldn’t even sit up without forcing myself. When my husband returned with a tow truck rescue he had to half carry me to our ride back down the mountain. I should have remembered. I didn’t. At our conference in Telluride at 9000ft I wasn’t ready to pass out but I kept getting sicker and sicker which I attributed to a bad asthma flair. My asthma did not get better with my meds. It got worse and worse. I began to think I had developed pneumonia again and I needed an antibiotic. I couldn’t even walk up a few steps without dragging myself. The day before we were scheduled to leave when I felt so horrible I telephoned the hotel doctor. He was very blunt.

“You have mountain sickness. You have to get down to a lower altitude. Leave first thing in the morning and get off the mountain. Don’t stay on. This will kill you. There is no treatment but to get to a lower altitude.” He then went on to explain that people like me with lung issues are especially prone to mountain sickness. Exactly as he predicted, I soon felt perfectly fine once we got down to 5000ft.

Now, here I was at 11,000ft again. I had gone voluntarily and without preparation. Foolish me. My head was hurting so badly I felt like I was going to have a stroke. My heart was racing. I was dizzy, nauseous, my hands were numb and tingling and the nail beds looked blue. I was shaking and I felt panicky. To reinforce my nasty feeling, Fred, who is an elderly dog with his own health issues, had collapsed in the back of the truck and was lying there panting heavily his tongue hanging out as blue as my nail beds. Dick and I had a few quick words. Should we continue finish the loop, and then go down the other side? Or should we turn around and go back the way we came? My sensation of imminent death due to a blinding headache grew and grew as we talked and I began to wonder if I could even manage to drive down. We opted to turn around and go back down as that was the quickest way to get lower. While I carefully turned the truck around with Dick outside spotting to make sure I did not go over the edge, head reeling, Dick paused for a few shots.

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Ears popping, spinning dizzy, shaking all over, I carefully retraced our path downwards. I was grateful we had decided to turn around because this meant I remembered what was coming on the drive. We continued down with the truck in low gear to minimize breaking and with each curve down, ears popping all over again, I felt a little better. By the time we got out of the National Forest I no longer felt like my head was going to explode. Instead I just had the really weird sensation of being aware of pulsing in every major blood vessel in my head and neck. Fred was doing better as well. As we passed Castle Rock, Fred had quit the heavy panting and he was sitting up again. My nail beds looked pink and so did Fred’s tongue. The headache had diminished to the point I no longer felt like I was about to have a stroke. Dick was sympathetic but bewildered. He had only felt a bit short of breath. He does not have lung issues, lucky fellow.

We looked at the map once we got back. We had made it almost to the turnoff to geyser pass. Too bad my poor lungs were in no shape to finish the drive. It would have been wonderful. We made some jokes about getting an oxygen tank for Fred and I and going up the rest of the drive from the other side since that way was shorter but they were jokes. I am just no good at 11,000ft. The only way we could ever do it is if I spent weeks slowly acclimatizing at gradually higher altitudes. No alpine meadow is worth it. I am prairie girl with bad lungs and I’ll just live with it that way. The La Sal mountain loop is really lovely but those brochures and recommendations should come with a warning for those with health issues. Climb 7000ft in such a short drive at your own risk.

 

Canyonlands National Park’s Islands in the Sky

Our second day of staying in Moab we took in the northern part of Canyonlands National Park. This road and trail system is called Islands in the Sky. It is not just a fanciful name. As I stood on the overviews I kept thinking how this is really the northern end of the Grand Canyon and it is indeed grand.

Canyonlands is laid out much like Arches. There is a visitor’s centre and a long stretch of highway with many overlooks and trails from very long and difficult to short little walks. We had the dog issue to consider again so we didn’t do any long trails but we did do all the short ones. Unlike Arches, the distances between the various overlooks was quite far. The longest one being 35 miles, but the views are spectacular so I didn’t mind. For context, this portion of the park is on a triangle of land in between the Green and Colorado River (which runs through Moab on the right of the picture) and both rivers have their own canyons and the two eventually blend where the confluence is. The drives take you to various overlooks so you can see both rivers and their canyon and the last point is the grand view overlooking the confluence point. The rivers are so deep in the canyon that don’t really see them. You just get glimpses of bends. The canyon has two rims, the one we were on and a lower one about halfway that forms a secondary plateau. All around the lower rim of the two canyons is a 100 mile long trail for four wheel drives with higher clearance and power than my F150. It takes two full days to drive that 100 mile trip giving one the idea of how challenging such a drive is. We kept seeing glimpses of the road from every view point.

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At each overlook we stopped and walked about taking in the grandeur. It is so beautiful I actually felt drained and in awe by the time we were finished. Everything about it is stark and potentially dangerous. It is easy to walk right up to the edges of the canyon. Dick and I both suffered vertigo, something we normally don’t. I was able to go closer than Dick. Prairie flatlanders that we are, the sheer cliffs and towering heights were overwhelming in their beauty.

I have to work on this whole selfie thing. I can’t seem to get a good shot. Dick took pictures of me while I tried to do a selfie and the result was amusing.

When you are accustomed to the lushness of green Manitoba in summer the desert seems a harsh and unwelcoming place, as barren as winter. The main feature and only bit of green is these tall twisted junipers. They smell heavenly. There are wide spaces with nothing but sand and dirt. Dick was delighted to find a single ant. I saw one grasshopper, just one. The only other living creatures we saw were ravens. The ravens liked to ride the thermals just off the cliff edges increasing my sense of vertigo watching them. I do wish I could fly.

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It took us several hours of go over all of the viewpoints and walk the trails we could where we felt safe leaving the dogs in the truck. Even though we only did short trails, by the end of the day we were both exhausted. The drive back from Canyonlands to our campground seemed to take forever. We both fell asleep early and slept soundly. Another item crossed off my personal bucket list. However as we gave the dogs a last walk before bed we both commented on how lovely the area is but how much it does not feel like home to us. We are both beginning to miss the open prairie sky. Our trip to Moab has made us appreciate our own home even more.