Tag Archives: travel

Florida Panhandle and Georgians.

We rolled into Florida at last. We had two stops. I have always loved St George’s State Park on the lovely island with its endless white sand beaches and little tourist costal town. Unfortunately, so it would appear does everyone else and the place is impossible to get into without a reservation. We decided to try some of the other coastal state parks instead.

We first stopped at Big Lagoon State Park. The park turned out to be both a pleasant surprise and a disappointment. It was a big disappointment because it is literally in a big lagoon behind a barrier peninsula and so there was no surf to see. The only beaches were small narrow brownish sand ones on brackish brown water side with signs warning about gators. Maybe I am a coward but I simply don’t like swimming where there are fellow swimmers that might eat me given a chance. However, we ended up really enjoying our stay because the park has a two mile trail along a dune that ends up in a lookout tower. We walked the trail with dogs and it was really pleasant and we had a lovely time. The other pleasant surprise was the constant display of fancy military aircraft. More than once we saw dazzling flyover formation of up to four military airplanes at a time so close they were almost touched. I love seeing airplanes which always seemed to me to be the pinnacle of human engineering achievement. In the end, in spite of the lack of surf, Big Lagoon was great fun and well worth the stop.

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We left Big Lagoon and continued east along the coast. After a quick stop in a laundry mat, we rolled along the coast enjoying route 98 until we reached T. H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. The highlight of that was seeing wild dolphins sporting in the ocean. I do love seeing wild dolphins.

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When we first arrived there were many sites for a single night but since the second night included a Friday and weekends are busy, there was only one site available for two nights. The campsites were all very close together and every spot near us had Georgians in it. A great gang of them had apparently all fled the recent snowfall. The site was a rather awkward tight back in. We had to ask a fellow to move his truck and I had to drive around again to get the rig lined up just right. He was very nice about our request and moved his Georgia state licensed truck for us with good cheer. Once I was in the right spot with enough room to maneuver, it was easy. I carefully and slowly back into the perfect position in one roll and then to my utter astonishment, I got out of the truck to a hefty round of applause from the folks all around us.  Apparently they found a female driver competently backing in to be astonishing. Several of them made comments like “Well done!” and “He let’s his wife back in?” and “I’ve never seen a woman do such a fine job backing up.”

I did a little bow for the audience and smiled broadly and shrugged and said “Farm girl married to a city boy.” And of course, as usual, that made perfect sense to them even though the real story is far more complicated. We chatted briefly with our friendly neighbours. My husband immediately lapses back into his midwest American English as soon as he hears it again but they commented on my Canadian accent with delight. I deliberately used the world “about” a lot since that is when it is most obvious. We had to give the usual explanation of where “Friendly Manitoba” is, (north of North Dakota) and how cold it is this time of year (-40 is where the Fahrenheit and Celsius systems cross.)

We continued to unpack and settled into our trailer while having a private laugh together about silly sexism and how generally delightful, charming and open hubby dearest’s fellow citizens are, especially those from Georgia. There really is no reason at all a woman can’t learn to back in a trailer properly and now they know Canadian farm girls can do it. It’s not a task that requires that brand of “superior male intellect” meaning brute male strength, as one of my female friends (a physicist by training) likes to say. Interesting how southern women have apparently arranged things so they never have to back in a trailer, bless their hearts.

At last! Ocean and rolling surf. I have been on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts but the Gulf of Mexico is really my favourite. The waves are pretty and roll about waist high. On the Pacific the waves are so huge I quite feel intimidated and on the Atlantic, it is unpredictable, small one day and rolling monsters the next. The Gulf of Mexico waves are almost always just the right size for my taste. The beach was endless stretches of lovely white sand, far longer than anything I could walk in a day. The park is set at the end of a long long peninsula so that the shoreline is natural dunes and plants. The only down side was no dogs are allowed on the beach so our faithful companions had to wait back at the trailer. Even so, we took a long long walk along the beach soaking up the feeling of sand and surf. A cold wind finally drove us back.

We went out to the beach at night once too. It was blacker than black and being cloudy there was nothing above either. The wind was ferocious and cutting cold and we had not thought to wear our Canadian winter gear so we didn’t last long. It was quite the experience, feeling utterly alone in the black. Eventually, refreshed and ready after four nights experiencing the coast, we left early morning, waving a cherry goodbye to the lovely Georgians, to arrive at our final destination in Florida, the charming little coastal town of Panacea where our friends were waiting to welcome us.

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Lousiana, Mississippi, Alabama

We spent four days going from Texas to Florida. We were now in travel mode and out of tourist mode, since we had done this route before. Our preferred travel mode is to drive no more than 600 km (372miles) and often less for a day, stop for a meal at a restaurant with internet where we get caught up with the world, park at a nice campground for two nights, spend the day in between nights hiking, canoeing if suitable water is available, relaxing, walking the dogs, and writing. The break from the internet is so refreshing. We both get a lot of writing done on stop days. We restrict shopping to travel days combining shopping with washroom breaks. The two biggest expenses of travel are gas fill ups and the fee for campgrounds. This mode also drops our fill ups to every other day and since national forests cost us about $10 a stop with Dick’s senior Passport America so it is a cheap way to travel.  This relaxing mode of travel means we don’t get anywhere fast but we enjoy ourselves as we go.

Our first night was the picturesque small city of Alexandria. We camped in the Kincaid Lake Recreation area in the Kisatchie National Forest. The spot is an exceptionally nice transition zone between deciduous forests of oak, maple, sycamore and cypress swamp pine and slash pine forests. We took a long long walk along the beach area which was technically closed but no one chased us away.

From there, we headed to Mississippi. We soon found ourselves dealing with the reason I absolutely HATE Louisiana travel. I don’t know what they spend their money on down there but it is not their interstate. The I10 interstate was in horrible shape, just as I recalled it from last year, and that part of the trip consisted of bone rattling whomp-whomp-whomp-whomp for miles and miles punctuated by many bridges where the road did not match the bridges, leading to massive bangs, clangs and jerks. Add to that more truck traffic than I have ever seen on one place, including Boston, and it sure was a relief to get into Mississippi and hit smooth pavement. The only good thing about that trip was that by cutting across to Alexandria we avoided 75% of the nightmare drive we endured last trip.

We stopped at another National Forest campground, this one called Big Buloxi in the Desoto National Forest. Wow has the Gulfport area ever exploded with life. We saw new businesses popping up everywhere and not a single foreclosure sign. We had a very relaxing stay before heading on to Alabama.IMG_0934

Two years ago Dick and I had the pleasure of traveling Alabama from north to south and we have crossed it at three points. We love Alabama. Highways are great and there are many wonderful campgrounds and lovely sights to see. However we were not doing Alabama this trip. We drove the interstate towards Florida, took that big tunnel through Mobile for the third time and after a brief stop for lunch in Daphne Alabama (which is as pretty as it sounds) we left the interstate and started traveling Rt 98 along the coast. Rt 98 is one of the loveliest, most picturesque routes in the USA with long stretches following the coastline and gorgeous views of the Gulf of Mexico. It also passes through every little fishing village, town, and shopping centre in the coast so stretches are packed full of busy people going about their lives. This means lots and lots of miles with traffic and noise and 35mph zones and red lights. You also have to really watch those speed limits signs because speeding tickets are a major source of income. (We haven’t had one yet but I am extra careful.) Still, we felt very much at home. We crossed into Florida absorbing the sights of the panhandle with relish and relief. We had finally reached our southern winter home.

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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.

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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