I don’t travel as much now as I used to. I seem content to go back to places that I’ve visited before rather than to strike out in a new direction. That seemed to be okay for now — as I am almost through my seventh decade — but I need to re-think that just a little.

My mother  did not travel much. Living and working  in St. Louis, she was pretty far from the wonders of the world. She went with a neighbor family to see Pikes Peak in an shiny new touring car sometime in the 1920s — crossing Kansas on what passed for roads and camping along the way. She and a bunch of girlfriends drove to Biloxi and the Gulf Coast in the 1930s. (Whoa– how daring!) She wasn’t a driver so she rode in the rumble seat and got sunburned.  I only know that because she kept a little travel journal complete with grainy Kodak photographs. We travelled on family vacations beginning in the late 1950s and when she and my dad moved to Virginia in the 1970s they travelled around the east coast. On her first airplane trip, out to California to visit her brother and sister-in-law, she visited an old Spanish mission and pried up an original clay floor tile and brought it home as a souvenir. Maybe it’s good that she didn’t travel to some places. Is that really the Holy Grail in the pantry?

richard_halliburtonBut I get some of my “wanderlust” from her. She was a big fan of Richard Halliburton, an almost unknown name today but at the time, back in the 1930s,  he was almost a rival to Charles Lindbergh. He was a dashing and fearless figure who travelled the world over and published stories and books of his travels. She scraped money together to buy his books and when he came to town she was in the audience. She went to see Lindbergh, too, but she seemed to be more impressed with Halliburton. He was almost a roaming evangelist for travelers…good looking and articulate — and single. He managed to turn travel into a career and made good money at it. His personal life was a little edgy by her standards, had she known, but back in the day much of that was kept private.

As I was recently going through some family books, I came across her old 1937 copy of Halliburton’s Book of Marvels: The Occident, which covers many of his travels and adventures in North and South America and Europe. I remember poring over that book as a kid and wanting to go see all of those places that were pictured. Looking through it now, especially the old black and white pictures,  I wonder how much things have changed. He was writing before WW-II but made reference to the damage that was done during “the Great War”.  Hitler was  in power in 1937 and Halliburton pretty much ignored the existence of the German state except to mention the damage the Germans did in shelling Rheims Cathedral (complete with photographs of the burning church). My dad trudged all over western Europe in WW-II from London to Paris and Berlin with an eventful stopover in Bastogne and was much less impressed with the place.

As I paged through the book this time I see that I’ve managed to visit a number of places he covered in 1937. Some are pretty commonplace today. He goes gaga over the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge in San Francisco. Chapters are devoted to Boulder Dam, Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls…people still are impressed with those. New York City gets a chapter with emphasis on the Empire State Building. Washington DC gets a chapter. It turns out I’ve staggered through all the places in the US that he featured in the book with the exception of Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas out in the Gulf west of Key West, Florida. I just never took the boat ride. There are a lot of places in the rest of the book that I haven’t visited. I’ve been to Machu Picchu and his pictures from the 1930s are interesting compared to what it looks like today. I’ve been maybe a couple hours away from some of the places but didn’t get there. I recall reading his account of  Vesuvius and Pompeii as a kid and even wrote a report for school based mostly on the book but I never managed to get there — just a few miles down the road from Rome.  There are a few places I’ll not visit — monasteries, mostly, but there are a number that still beckon…Iguazu Falls and Rio de Janeiro could be one trip. Athens and Istanbul could be another trip.

richard-halliburton-elephantHalliburton was a great self-promoter and he seemed to be awestruck with almost anything he encountered along the way. His prose was gushing in praise for everything and sounds silly today. He found all sorts of people to happily pose in native costumes for his photographs but he seemed to really like being photographed riding elephants. There are a lot of those.

Undaunted by the first hostilities of WW-II, Japan and China were at war, Halliburton had a Chinese Junk, the Sea Dragon, built in Hong Kong  in 1939 and planned to sail it across the Pacific to San Francisco. How tough could it be? Halliburton and a crew of six Americans set off in March and ran headlong into a typhoon. The ship was last seen some distance west of Midway Island struggling through the storm. It was never seen again.  Initial reaction was that this was a publicity stunt — Amelia Earhart had gone missing two years earlier so nobody was dumb enough to try this without some back-up plan…right? Eventually the navy went out looking for the Sea Dragon or some evidence of wreckage but nothing was found. Halliburton was declared dead in  October, 1939. Germany had invaded Poland the previous month so there was not as much attention paid to his disappearance. My mom was probably heartbroken. Rumors persisted for years that he actually was alive and living like a native in some remote location but none of the crew ever turned up. Eventually, in 1945, some wooden wreckage washed ashore near San Diego that could have been from the Sea Dragon but, after so many years of war in the Pacific, it could have been from almost anything.  I might travel a little more but I won’t be trying that.

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The View From the Observation Car


I enjoy train travel. There, I said it for all the world to see.

For some reason there is a lot of complaining and ill-will directed toward train travel and especially Amtrak, the only nation-wide rail passenger service in the United States. I just completed a 2,000 mile round trip train journey from Albuquerque to St. Louis and it was an enjoyable experience. This was a trip for a family reunion and I had a nice long visit with family and friends — some from forty years ago.

One important point needs to be made….I had a roomette in a sleeper car. Sleeper car accomodations are, for me, the way to go on any long train trip. This is for several reasons: You get to stretch out and actually attempt to sleep in a bed. Secondly, you have a place to keep your stuff reasonably secured. Thirdly, your dining car meals are included in the price of the sleeper…and the food is 100 times better than anything airlines are serving. You still have to pay for alcohol. Fourthly, there is an attendant assigned to each sleeper car who takes care of your routine needs and keeps the coffee pot going and ice available. Introduce yourself by name and consider a tip for exceptional service. The attendant makes your bed at night and converts it into seats during the day. Fifthly,  on this trip I get to sleep through Kansas…the best way to go through Kansas in my opinion. On the shorter leg of my journey, from Kansas City to St. Louis, I used business class — which means I had a little more space and wi-fi as well as free coffee in the adjoining cafe section.  I’m getting a little robust in my old age…some would call it portly…and I’m considering a larger compartment on my next trip at least in one direction. Americans are not as small as they used to be and two large-sized adults in a roomette is pretty tight.

Cost is a factor but when I compared the round-trip sleeper costs to a round-trip airline ticket with reasonable departures and arrivals and only one out-of-the-way layover (Denver or Houston) the train was about $130 dollars more expensive. That was worth the cost to me. Of course time is a factor as well. If you have to be somewhere in a hurry, don’t take the train. The horrendous stories about late train arrivals are not as common as one would think. We got into St. Louis five minutes early and were back into Albuquerque about thirty minutes late. The delay was caused by a stalled truck on the tracks in Kansas. I left Albuquerque on a Tuesday and returned from St. Louis on a Friday. Sleeper car accomodations fluctuate in cost based on season and demand and there could be a very significant difference from one day to another. It pays to be flexible and schedule your trip for days when the costs are lower. That’s not always possible but it works well for retirees or for people with sufficient time and flexibility.

I enjoy the dining car experience because the food is good and because Amtrak practices open seating, which means that you will be placed at a table with other travellers. Don’t expect to eat alone…you will have company and often an interesting conversation. On this trip I met an interesting lady from Hawaii (also going to St. Louis), two published writers, a man who seems to have personal communication with the Lord…who gives him stock tips, and a fellow train buff on his way to Minneapolis. On other trips I’ve enjoyed the dining company of park rangers, film producers, bee keepers, and a man on his way to Osawatamie. The standard menu is pretty good but there are often meal specials like braised pork shanks with mesquite BBQ sauce, mashed potatoes, a roll, dessert, and iced tea. That was a lunch special and included in the sleeper price.

So…what about the view from the observation car? I’ll post some pictures but you really don’t have to be in the observation car to watch the scenery go by. There is a small snack bar on the lower level for drinks and light snacks or sandwiches. Since I enjoy photography I take a bunch of pictures. Here are some from the trip….It was monsoon season in New Mexico when I left so the clouds were often as interesting as the landscape.It was less cloudy on the way back.







One doesn’t always see the most scenic side of towns or cities along the way but there are some interesting sights like prisoners in an exercise yard, a nice park pavilion, agricultural operations and a few interesting old houses along the way. Coming back on the return trip it was somewhat comforting to recognize the familiar mountain profiles and the far-off horizons of New Mexico.


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Quick View of Canyon de Chelly


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m posting this partly to cement my commitment to return to Canyon de Chelly on a better day when I have more time. I decided to visit almost spontaneously as I was driving home from Flagstaff. I already had motel reservations in Gallup and the drive from Flagstaff was so short that I would be there by 11 AM. What to do?  I already went through the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert — you can see that here . Sitting in a McDonalds in Winslow, I looked at a map and my watch and figured I could make it to Canyon de Chelly just for a quick visit and then go on to Gallup. I’ve never been to Canyon de Chelly.

One of my few complaints about family vacations as a kid was that my dad figured that if we couldn’t see something from the car window as we drove down the highway it wasn’t worth seeing. I’m just the opposite and I dilly-dally my way across country and purposely make advance motel reservations about four or five hours apart. As they say, we may never pass this way again.   But…here I was trying to squeeze in a side trip that deserved much more time.

So off I went.  It took a little longer than I anticipated to get there so that left me with maybe two hours to see what I could see and then get back on the road for Gallup. I stopped at the Visitor’s Center and got advice and a map. I would only have time for the south side of the canyon. The advice was to go all the way to Spider Rock and then work my way back.

I quickly learned that looks are very deceiving at Canyon de Chelly because you lose proportion and context a little. You don’t realize how high the canyon walls really are…and how far down it is to the canyon floor. This is especially true in my case just coming from a visit to the Grand Canyon.



Spider Rock is over 700 feet tall from the floor of the canyon… and you are looking down on it. I was raised in St. Louis and learned to gauge tall things by the height of the Gateway Arch.  Spider rock is almost 100 feet taller than the Arch.


The day was moving on and it looked like maybe we would see some snow. I headed back along the south rim road and stopped at s few spots.


ansel-adams-canyon book cover
Ansel Adams photo – book cover

It was a cold day and I’m certain that I missed several places along the way. I finally reached White House Ruin overlook. If you are familiar with Ansel Adams you will probably recognize White House Ruin. You can easily find his photograph just about everywhere.  I’m guessing that this is now one of the most photographed spots in the west but it is hard to capture it. Adams was on the floor of the canyon looking up at the ruin. When you get there you expect it to be larger and almost expect to see it in black and white. There is no easy access to the canyon floor…and you usually need a guide or Navajo escort because this is a sacred place. Most people don’t climb down the long trail to the canyon floor to take a picture. It is a long way up again. So…the first challenge is that you are close to a mile away and the ruin is quite small.


In Adams’ iconic photograph you only see the upper ruin in the rock shelter. There is another ruin on the canyon floor pressed against the rock wall that is as big or bigger than the sheltered one.  Adams found a vantage point that concealed the lower ruin so he could focus on the white ruin tucked into the rock shelter. I don’t know much about his method or equipment but he must have had plenty of time and patience. This was two generations before the birth of digital photography.



My day was running out and I had to get on the road. I wasn’t quite sure of the route back to Gallup. I will come back here and spend more time.


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The Canyon & Waiting for the Snow

We are supposed to get snow today and tomorrow but the forecasts are a little confusing. They make it sound like a major catastrophe is bearing down on us and then we get an inch and a half of snow and it is gone in six hours. This is New Mexico where the weather is mostly the same from day to day within the slow seasonal cycles so anything that varies from the norm gets a lot of attention.  I’m actually hoping for a little snow — not eight inches.

I recently spent a couple days at Grand Canyon — just before Christmas. That is a wonderful time to visit because there are so few people there and the snow decorates the canyon walls. So, as I await the coming blizzard (or snow shower) I’ll post some Grand Canyon pictures.




The weather was a little unsettled first day at the canyon but the second day was clear with a beautiful blue sky. The lack of clouds or atmospheric variations tended to wash out the depth of the canyon and it was hard to get good distance photographs. I was there partially for the architecture of the 100 year old park buildings so I enjoyed that as much as the canyon shots.


While not exactly empty, the park is not anywhere as crowded as it is in the summer and you can take as much time as you want and see it on your own terms.  One thing I noticed in the snow is the foot prints of the other visitors. They apparently ignore the safety railings and climb out on the farthest and most precarious perches. This is dangerous in warm and dry conditions but in snow and ice it is a little foolhardy. Sometimes the footprints went out to the edge but didn’t come back. I wonder how many people go missing.   Anyway, the park was mostly empty except for me, several bus loads of Chinese tourists and some hardy winter backpackers.


Well…the clouds have moved in so I guess it will start snowing soon. I’m ready.

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In Praise of Old Hotels — Part 11: Bright Angel Lodge, Grand Canyon

I was recently on a week-long vacation to Flagstaff, Arizona as a pre-Christmas holiday. I’ve discovered that I enjoy going places in mid-winter when everyone is in pretty good spirits. I’ve always wanted to see the Grand Canyon in winter so I took this opportunity to schedule a vacation within a vacation and spend a couple days on the South Rim. I booked a night in Bright Angel Lodge in a cabin positioned close to the canyon rim.

The Canyon is not crowded in mid-December. It was cold and snowy and there were a few hardy winter back-packers and a couple dozen Chinese tourists and a few others. I have always been to the Grand Canyon in warmer weather with hordes of people. This seemed almost empty by comparison.

The drive up from Flagstaff is only about two hours. I took my time and stopped at some Indian pueblo ruins and at a few spots along the Little Colorado River gorge. We had snow the previous day and it was a pretty drive with very few other cars. I entered the National Park at the east entrance and stopped along the rim drive at several places to take pictures. I got to Bright Angel Lodge around 4 PM.

Bright Angel Lodge

BA_Hotel_1910The Grand Canyon became a national park in 1919 but there had already been a great deal of activity and tourist development prior to the park’s existence. Individual developers and entrepreneurs had lodging and tour businesses but it was quite rustic. The original Bright Angel Hotel and camp was built around 1900 as a mix of tent and rustic log-cabin hotel accommodations. Ownership passed through a several hands until the Grand Canyon Railroad acquired the property along the south rim of the canyon. Tourism was picking up and in 1905 the railroad constructed the sprawling El Tovar Hotel operated by the Fred Harvey hotel chain.   The rustic Bright Angel Hotel operation, upgraded to cabins instead of tents,  continued after the National Park was established with the El Tovar Hotel serving as the primary grand hotel at the canyon.

The Santa Fe Railway, owner of the Grand Canyon Railroad,  wanted quality lodging for the visitors to the park and saw the need for improvement at the Bright Angel operation. The railroad was already heavily engaged with Fred Harvey beginning in 1876 when he opened his first railroad restaurant in Topeka. There were Harvey Hotels scattered along the railroad’s major passenger routes in the west.  In 1930 the railroad teamed up with Harvey and Harvey’s architect, Mary Colter, to replace the aging Bright Angel Hotel with a new Harvey-run hotel to be called the Bright Angel Lodge.  Colter had already built two Grand Canyon concession facilities:  Hopi House in 1905 and Hermit’s Rest in 1914.


Colter’s first proposed design was for a large stone structure but Harvey and the railroad opted for a more rustic stone and timber lodge. The main lodge building, completed in 1935, is an impressive re-thinking of the original rustic hotel.  Like the original, it is perched on the rim of the canyon and equipped with large stone fireplaces and log cabin style sections interspersed with rough stone walls.

The interior is styled as a mountain hunting lodge with large fireplaces and a soaring vaulted ceiling of timbers. The “Bright Angel” is the Thunderbird image over the main fireplace. There is a second large fireplace in what is now the History Room that is constructed with the same sequence of stone that one would find in the stone layers of the canyon.

The restaurant has been modernized but you can still see Colter’s design in the rough log wall decorations and the ceiling beams. Earlier pictures show this as dark stained wood but now it is much brighter. I ate in the main restaurant (there are two) and the food was good and unusually expensive.  I had trout for dinner and my breakfast was a typical sausage and eggs. This was not fast food…plan to stay a while. There were guests at breakfast who were unhappy with the service and the food but mine was fine…just slow.

I also took advantage of the bar and had a couple beers during happy hour. Selection was limited but okay. It was a cold day and there was a constant stream of guests looking for coffee or hot chocolate. Unfortunately the hot chocolate machine broke down earlier in the day. I could have made a killing with a hot chocolate concession. I suspect that the hotel staff might be somewhat reduced in winter months and service is slower.

The Cabins, where I stayed,  were also designed by Mary Colter. and are perched along the canyon rim or scattered to the west of the main lodge. These are a mix of semi-attached and stand-alone structures.

I stayed in a “partial view” cabin which is maybe thirty feet from the rim and has a nice view of the canyon. Most of the cabins do not have a canyon view. In mid-winter I would recommend sweaters and warm clothes if you stay in a cabin. There were a few cabins with fireplaces but mine had baseboard heat and was a little chilly. Considering that the cabins are eighty years old they are comfortable and in good condition. They are not as rustic on the inside as they appear from the outside.


El Tovar Hotel

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABesides Bright Angel Lodge there are plenty of other accommodations close by. El Tovar Hotel, constructed in 1905, is the grandest hotel in the park. You can imagine hotel guests arriving in stage coaches from the railroad station and being greeted by the “Harvey Girls”. I didn’t stay there but roamed around the lobby and the large sitting porches that look out over the canyon or the front approaches where the carriages or touring cars would have pulled up.

There are modern hotel and motel accommodations as well. The Thunderbird Lodge offers another option close to the canyon rim and it is located between El Tovar and Bright Angel Lodge. None of the canyon rim lodging options are inexpensive but there is no other place quite like this so you end up paying a premium price.


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Tent Rocks — Kasha-Katuwe National Monument

Between Albuquerque and Santa Fe you can get off the highway (I-25) and drive toward the Rio Grande River, cross over by the Cochiti Dam and through the Pueblo of Cochiti to a little-known (but locally iconic) magical place called Kasha-Katuwe.  Kasha-Katuwe means “white cliffs” in the Pueblo language Keresan, spoken on several New Mexico Pueblos including the Cochiti, Santa Ana, Zia, Kewa and San Felipe Pueblos. A more recognized name is Tent Rocks. I can’t help myself — I always go back and end up taking visitors there if they have the time and feel like spending the day outdoors and scrambling on a little hike.

I had visitors a few weeks ago and we spent the afternoon up at Kasha-Katuwe. Their reaction was that it was like being on one of those Hollywood versions of an alien planet from a 1950s science fiction movie. There is an alien feel about the place.  In some respects it almost seems surreal…like you have ventured into Salvador Dali’s dreamscape.

It is a geological wonder. Once upon a time, there was a large volcanic eruption — or maybe many eruptions — followed by pyroclastic flows of hot ash. The ash was subjected to periodic flooding followed by yet more ash flows — each episode depositing a distinctive layer in the geologic record. Erosion — wind and water  — scoured the area leaving fantastic cone-shaped rock formations.

Another feature is the slot canyon. Water flowing down through the flow area carved a narrow canyon that is only a few feet wide in places. The trail follows the twisting canyon and there are a few spots that require a steep climb or scramble. The colors change slightly based on the clouds or sunlight.

Parts of the canyon open up and reveal broader galleries with isolated pockets of plant life.

The canyon trail eventually leads to a more open area and a scrambling trail that leads to the top of the “white cliffs” — Kasha-Katuwe — and a panoramic view of the surrounding hills leading down to the Rio Grande valley. You can spend a lot of time wandering through the fantastic landscape. On our last visit we met the Park Ranger who was encouraging people to move out of the canyon due to approaching storms. I don’t think I would want to be in the canyon during one of our desert rainstorms.

As far as we went — storm approaching


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Enchanted…More or Less: Bandelier National Monument (Part One)

Ever since I was eleven years old I’ve wanted to visit Bandelier National Monument. A kid in the neighborhood went and came back with interesting pictures. My imagination ran wild. I was a junior Indiana Jones…before Harrison Ford was out of high school.

Bandelier was on my list but it took me fifty-five year to get there.  It was worth the wait. I made the trip this past week along with my daughter. We have been sidekicks in these adventures. We went to Machu Picchu together a few years ago and have explored a few other spots. This trip had a dual purpose — first, of course, was to fulfill my old desire to visit the place. Secondly, I wanted to check out the CCC era structures that were built in the mid-1930s. Bandelier is rich in these 80 year old depression-era structures and actually has the largest concentration of CCC buildings of any national park.

Adolph Bandelier, a self-taught anthropologist, began exploring and documenting the sites in Frijoles Canyon around 1880. The sites were not hard for him to locate…the Cochiti and other local Pueblo people considered the place their ancestral home and guided him to the canyon. He worked there about twelve years and then moved on to sites in Bolivia and Peru. He died in Seville, Spain, in 1914 while researching Spanish colonial records. Others followed in Bandelier’s footsteps and the site was of such importance that it was designated a National Monument in 1916…even though it was nearly inaccessible.

CCC Improvements (Bandelier CCC Historic District)

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was mobilized in 1933 to improve access to the monument and to assist in stabilization of the ruins. There was a small lodge built on the site in 1909 but access was on foot. Everything and everybody came into the canyon on foot until the CCC built the first road in 1933. A quarry was established and new stone structures were built for a new expanded lodge and park administration. The buildings were designed and built in the Pueblo Revival style and are clustered together to resemble a small village. There apparently was a team of architects and designers but the primary architect on the project was Lyle Bennett who also is responsible for the lodge building at the Painted Desert National Park (Petrified Forest). The National Park Service was busy building structures in dozens of parks and NPS architects worked together or individually on various projects. The overall style came to be known as “Parkitecture”.

Park administration and visitor services have expanded and taken over all of the original lodge buildings although some remain as park employee residences. There is a self-guided tour of the cluster of CCC buildings.  I found that the close proximity of the structures, the cut stonework, terraces and some of the detailed stone features all combined to remind me of my time spent among the Inca sites in Peru. These structures were occupied (and not ruins) but are held together in a cohesive plan similar to some of the smaller sites in the Andes. This may just be my impression but I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the park site designers had some exposure to the Peruvian Inca sites that were being uncovered in the early 1900s.

The buildings were constructed from blocks of volcanic tuff (consolidated ash) that came from the original quarry. The stone was soft enough that it could be cut into blocks by a crosscut saw at the quarry. The buildings were originally covered with a plaster or light concrete stucco/coating that has since melted away but there are plans to eventually replace the plaster covering. Personally, I like the cut stone look.

There is a strong Spanish and Pueblo emphasis on the interior details and features. Most of the ceilings have large vigas and latillas. The old lodge reception area has a particularly interesting ceiling structure. All of the original furniture and light fixtures were crafted by CCC workers during the construction of the buildings. There is a great deal of detail work and most of it seems intact and well preserved.









Recent Flooding

The Jemez Mountains and the area around Los Alamos have seen some serious forest fires in recent years. Bandelier and Frijoles Canyon are downstream from the large burn areas and have experienced major flooding from flash floods. The flood of August, 2011, came within a few feet of the historic CCC buildings. The important ruins are mostly on higher ground and were not seriously impacted by the floods. There have been several serious floods and the Park Service installed a series of temporary sandbag levees to protect the buildings. There is ample evidence of flooding in the park and several bridges have been washed out.



In Part Two I’ll finally get to the reason why most people go to Bandelier National Monument….be patient.

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 NOTE -The CCC buildings and the historic site at Bandelier National Monument was featured on one of the New Mexico Architectural Foundation’s annual field trips. For more information on the foundation or this or other annual trips go to the foundation’s web page at:  http://newmexicoarchitecturalfoundation.org/