addendum, and

And so concludes my writing about my month in Taiwan for a Fulbright-Hays Summer Seminar. I took the photo above–taken during a coordinated drone light show on the opening night of the Taiwan International Balloon Festival near the Taiwanese east coast city of Taitung–after the seminar was over, and was off on my own.

“See you tomorrow!” I could think of much to say about that alone, even without Hello Kitty! Meanwhile, just a couple of more photos. First, a group shot!

Next, one of me, taken at the Kavalan Whisky Bar in Taipei by a fellow grantee, then one more from Taipei. And that’ll do.

culture and place, taiwan

One more, I thought–I need one more blog entry to do my trip to Taiwan for a Fulbright-Hays Summer Seminar justice. I was there with a group of faculty for a month, and spent three days there on my own. Then I snap photos almost daily while at home, so you know I had a zillion shots from Taiwan. Why not share more?

Here goes, then. I thought in this entry I would focus more on typical Taiwan scenes, with ones not only from Taipei but from around its territory. After all, we made stops in small towns in the mountains, larger western cities, including the onetime colonial capital of Tainan, the sprawling southwestern city of Kaohsiung, and eastern cities, including Taitung and Hualien.

Among the things we did and saw along the way included:

  • Hearing from high school students in Kaohsiung about virtual international exchange studies, the level of study required in Taiwan (intense, dramatic), college prep, and the like. Some of the same students led us, in separate groups, on tours around an art park and redeveloped commercial and tourist district near downtown (Pier-2 Art Center).
  • Toured an architectural dig near an old Dutch colonial site in Tainan, after hearing from a panel of archeologists about their work and how it refects or involves the island’s complex history.
  • Took a brief Chinese drumming class, toured, and played around at a one-time Japanese colonial sugar mill turned into a theme park of sorts (Ten Drum Culture Village).
  • Spent a couple of hours at a tea farm near Alishan, where we were treated to a tea tasting and learned about the economics and social aspects of the high mountain tea business.
  • Spent an afternoon at an indigenous house and farm near Taitung, learning about traditional foodways, as well as typical means of building or construction.
  • Stopped at many a temple, learned about (mostly Chinese folk religion and Buddhist-oriented) religious and cultural life in the cities and countryside, and the like, with an especially heavy dose of this in the Zuoying District of Kaohsiung.

We were presented with mounds of delicious food (most Chinese or Taiwan-Chineese, but some indigenous food, along with Thai-inspired dishes, Japanese, and American and Taiwanese-American hybrids) along the way, usually delivered to and pushed around on lazy susan-type tables.

Along with other faculty grantees, meanwhile, I visited night markets, shrines tiny and vast, huge bookstores with elaborate stationery and writing utensil sections, roadside tourist villages, convenience stores with stationery sections and emergency business apparel, and on and on and on. But I also visited a few places on my own or with one or two other faculty, including an outstanding photography museum in Taiepei (whose exhibits, housed in an old colonial Japanese building, often reflected the country’s dialogues about its history and identity).

Almost every other faculty member went home a few days after our return to Taipei, where we worked on our curriculum projects and made presentations about them. But I opted to spend three days on Taiwan on my own. The reason? I was allowed that option at my own expense. In that time, I went to the giant, Sanrio-sponsored Taiwan International Balloon Festival near the tiny Luye Township. Then I took a ferry from Taitung to Green Island, where I took a scooter around the island and stayed at a mod-looking backpackers hostel.

Logically, after that, I spent a night and most of the next day being pampered and eating exceedingly fine Chinese and Asian food at the luxury Shangri-La Hotel. I was feeling exhausted and stuffy by then, so that was a fine end to the most eventful trip I have ever taken.

Now, a few shots, then even more. Hopefully, they show what I saw: A modern, dynamic place with so much color, good humor, and joy–so much life. It has little crime, friendly people, a highly educated population, and it is organized, but not to a stifling degree. I hope the island gets the future it clearly deserves.

Scooters in a “school of fish” (my words) formation, moving onto an expressway in Taipei

the underrated beauty of taiwan

Formosa: It’s a name I previously often associated with termites after hearing about problems with wood frame homes in Southeast Louisiana. NOT GOOD. But in old American encyclopedias, you can see what is now called “Taiwan” listed as “Formosa.”

These are words used to describe the same place, in effect, with “Formosa” described in-country as its “popular name.” Formosa meant “beautiful island” and was given by Portuguese sailors who passed near the beginning of Taroko Gorge, near the city of Hualien on Taiwan’s east coast. There, they saw two mountain ranges meeting near the Philippine Sea, with tall mountain peaks stretching to the horizon.

Our Fulbright-Hays faculty group did not get as good of a view as the Portuguese sailors on the day we toured and hiked at Toroko National Park. Even so, we saw plenty to evoke awe and wonder in us there, and throughout the island. Then I saw even more beauty in Taiwan when visiting Green Island, a small island off the east coast.

But I had already seen enough stunning natural wonders to make a banner trip by the trip’s halfway point, starting with Yangmingshan National Park near Taipei. I went with a group of seven other faculty to this park, known for its geothermal activity, lush green hills, water buffalo, agricultural tourism spots nearby, hiking trails, and much else. I lucked out on my first day in a national park in Taiwan by getting a shot of the water buffalo, who were busy wallowing in mud, as they are wont to do.

Yangmingshan National Park

Taiwan is unusual, however, in that most of its landmass is dominated by mountains, including some of the highest peaks in the Pacific Asia region, the highest outside of the Himalayas, and other far interior ranges of the Asian continent. Then, the main island is still crossed by the Tropic of Cancer, making for high natural drama.

Among the places we saw near the tropical line were vastly cooler places, temperature-wise, than Taipei. These included the sparklingly gorgeous Sun Moon Lake and Alishan National Scenic Area, located after a high point where tropical greenery on winding, steep roads fully gives way to increasing conifers.

Photos of both places are shown below, along with shots from Taroko Gorge, Hualien, and Green Island. The map at right shows all photo locations.

One interesting fact I learned in lectures: Japanese government people thought that, in taking over the island as a colony in the late 19th Century, they would claim a tropical island. They found mountains with snowy peaks in winter instead. It was not a sugar or pineapple plantation-intensive kind of place (although pineapples are still grown in Taiwan and exported to Japan), particularly.

However, if I start writing about that sort of history again, I would have to include some shots of cities and cultural life. That will come in one final post. Or maybe final? Probably final.

taiwan: democratic, energetic, and its own place

Within a month of returning to the United States from a month-long visit to Taiwan, I was feeling discombobulated and a bit gloomy.

Back in Jackson, MS, where I live and teach political science, I found myself having to keep from doomscrolling, what with my worrying about the depressing political state of things in the United States. The mass shootings, the book bans, internecine party wars over who would be Speaker of the House, the ongoing culture wars, and, of course, the 90-odd Trump indictments in two states and the District of Columbia–all of it was a bit much.

Along with finding myself stuck in the muck of reading about American dysfunction came a bit of a creative block. I stopped and started on videos and blog or newsletter entries about my experience and travels, but thought they lacked something. I would redo a video and spot more pronunciation and minor factual errors. Eventually, I indefinitely delayed putting a video together since my priority was to finish trip reflections and a higher education curriculum project required by the trip’s sponsor.

Several months later, Taiwan was not in the news the way it had been before I took my day-long journey to the Asia Pacific island, from Jackson, MS to Taipei. Coverage of tensions between China and Taiwan had been eclipsed, like so much else, by the Hamas militant group’s October 2023 attacks in southern Israel and the ensuing Israeli ground invasion of Gaza.

Even today, though, Taiwan’s recent history has much to show the world, given how anti-democratic currents are still being felt in the developed world. These were felt in Israel before October 7. As I type, the situation for democracy in the United States still seems iffy as well, going into another federal election year.

Before going further into why Taiwan’s experience has some relevance to the world now, however, I should explain how I came to visit the island.

Application, Pandemic Delays, and … We’re Set

My Taiwan story starts in what can seem like another epoch now, the pre-COVID-19 pandemic era of late 2019. It was then that the political science department chair at Jackson State University, where I was then a visiting faculty member (read: contingent faculty) in the department, told me about the opportunity to apply for participation the Fulbright-Hays Summer Seminar in Taiwan. For those not in the know, Fulbright-Hays, although associated with and funded through the U.S. State Department’s Fulbright international scholarship program, is administered by the U.S. Department of Education. Its purpose is increasing international understanding, as with the State Dept. program, but it has more of an education focus, particularly with its summer seminars. Those sent educators at the elementary and secondary level, as well as faculty in higher ed, and have them develop curriculum projects to encourage the internationalizing of what those faculty teach back at home.

I was chosen as an alternate before COVID hit. Flash forward three years, three delayed seminars in a row, regular messages from the Education Dept., and I was asked if I wanted to go to Taiwan. A few months later, me and fellow grantees took part in weekly virtual orientation sessions, full of info about Taiwanese culture, identity, politics, international engagement, and the like, hosted by an Asian Studies center at George Washington University. In June, we were off.

Weeks of Scurrying, Learning. Then, Seeing Lessons.

Upon getting to my hotel around 9 p.m. in the busy Ximending area of Taiepi, a shopping and entertainment district, I spent at least two-and-a-half hours roaming around, ostensibly looking for a USB-A to USB-C converter (which was easily found–electronics and mobile phone-oriented purveyors abound in Tapei), checking out everything from high-end apparel stores to arcades, the offerings at the 7-11s, and selfie studios, outdoor martial arts and dance demos, and three-story, densely packed Japanese grocery store with a cute, video game-sounding theme song playing over its PA on repeat. The Japanese influence was obvious, with the cartoons everywhere. I was tired, and Ximending was hot and humid, but I was having a grand time.

Among the sorts of things I saw on my first night and full day Taipei, and throughout the my time there, are shown below.

What followed was day after day after day of discovery, curiosity, puzzlement, and awe, much of it experienced with a group of faculty members from across the U.S. (mainly social science people, with a few education specialists and an English professor who sent trip-and-lecture-oriented poems to our WhatsApp group-chat every day). We attended near-daily lectures about topics ranging from Taiwan’s domestic politics to the island’s indigenous peoples, Taiwan’s half a century spent as a Japanese colony, the country’s environment and native wildlife, and its economy. We toured museums galore and breathtaking national parks. We ate what seemed like entirely too much delicious and often-spicy food until I came home and realized after checking a few times that I weighed less than before. (I still think a good name for a photo book about the trip would be, “There’s Always a Fish,” referencing the whole fish that would come at the end of every multi-course Lazy Susan revolving table meal.)

After a time, three main themes or question areas started to emerge for me, among them:

  • The tangled issue of Taiwanese national identity, with influences from Dutch and Japanese colonial rule (50 years of it before the end of World War II), decades of significant Han Chinese immigration under the Qing Dynasty, and post-WWII authoritarian rule under Chiang Kai-Shek and Chinese nationalists there after they fled mainland China amid the Chinese Civil War, and ongoing tensions with the People’s Republic of China. Meanwhile, Taiwan has a small indigenous population, but it is likely where the Austronesian peoples originated.
  • The strength of Taiwan’s liberal democracy and commitment to civil or human rights and liberties, with a higher ranking from the nonprofit, U.S.-based Freedom House organization for its Freedom of the World map than the United States. (Most intriguingly to many in our group, it has legalized same-sex marriage and more tolerance of LGBTQ persons than any other East Asian country.) It is still a young democracy, with its martial law era having ended only in the late 1980s, but it is a stable and vibrant one.

I have posted links below that get into Taiwan’s colonial history, identity, and relations with China. The Freedom House report on Taiwan is also listed below. Otherwise, I found its identity issues ridiculously tangled and full of contradictions. Here is a place, I thought, where more people than ever identify more as Taiwanese than anything else. Even so, Taipei’s major attractions include a museum full of Chinese treasures, art, and artifacts, and then a national memorial to Sat Yun-Sen, the founder of modern China.

I heard from panelists and locals alike about the debate over how to recognize and separate the country from its colonial past. In some cases, all these issues came up at the same time, as in a national photography museum in Taipei, with exhibits involving the Chinese Civil War, photos from rural China by a Taiwanese photographer, post-WWII street photography by a Taiwanese man raised in Japan during the colonial years, and the like. (As a person born and raised in the American South, I fully grasped the idea of living with a tangle of cultural contradictions.)

Meanwhile, I started wondering, after a time, what best explained Taiwan’s commitment to democracy. I examined scholarship on Taiwanese civil society and participation, considered comments I heard before and during the trip about how the situation with China shapes Taiwanese thought, and learned about its more communal culture. Ultimately, its relatively low level of inequality, combined with its high level of development (with its dominance of the semiconductor industry being a strong indicator there), helps explain Taiwan’s success. But its historical experience is significant there as well, as are its thorny relations with China.

And that brings up the third theme:

Constantly having a consistent, if low-level hum of anxiety about China in the background and central to its politics, but also something Taiwanese people would love to hear less about. American influence can also not be discounted. But Taiwan is its own place, with a distinct history (including a tragic early history and mass slaughter of dissidents under the Republic of China banner with the “white terror” era–on that’s the subject of a national human rights memorial and museum on Green Island, off the main island’s, aka Formosa’s, east coast).

Next …

I will leave the China topic at that. Otherwise, what I want to highlight with any further blog entries at Cosmic Ray’s is the country’s beauty, the color and feel of its densely populated cities, and its liveliness. What surprised me the most, however, was how much more gorgeous its countryside was than I ever expected, so that comes next. A sampling is shown below.

Links of Interest

Freedom House: Taiwan Profile

BBC Taiwan Profile

China & Taiwan: A Really Simple Guide

Taiwan’s Rocky Road to Democracy

What is Taiwanese Gua Bao?

Night Markets in Taiwan

National Palace Museum (Taipei)

el morro & environs

After a wildly busy three days in Arizona, and a big breakfast in the morning at La Posada, I began shifting the action back from whence I came, to New Mexico. This meant a long drive, and I hate long drives. Through some planning and research, however, I was able to pinpoint some interesting historical and cultural spots along the way, the first after a quiet drive through mile after lonely mile of curiously beautiful Arizona desert.

I first stopped at a Zuni Pueblo visitor’s center about an hour (and change) southwest of Petrified Forest National Park. There, I admired pottery and read about the Spanish being misinformed about gold and silver deposits in this part of the world. Misinformation! It leads to so many problems. A dozen or so miles up the road? Cliff dwellings, about three-quarters of a mile off NM 53 (Ice Cave Road), ones unattached to any state or national park or landholdings.

You wouldn’t have believed the number of cars that passed by, on a rocky road, as I took the photos. I saw fewer between Holbrook AZ and the turnoff. No idea what that was about!

Cliff Dwellings near Ramah, New Mexico

A few quick snapshots and a snail’s-pace drive back onto 53, and I headed to El Morro National Monument. I do not have the time or the mental bandwidth (I’ve been painting a ceiling and getting ready for a fall semester) to get into all the details. You can read up on the place here, though. Suffice it to say that while the contrast of colors at the park, and a hike to the top of its sandstone rock alone make the stop worth making, what makes it most memorable is its history.

El Morro National Monument, New Mexico

El Morro’s lower reaches are, for instance, filled with a mix of petroglyphs, along with engraved signatures dating from 1605, and continuing on through the immediate post-Civil War years. The reason: This area had, and still has, an oasis at its center (which I photographed but wasn’t much to look in a drier-than-usual mid-June 2021).

Atop the rock (and four or five steep flights of stairs), meanwhile, are what remains of a large Native American pueblo.

Verdict: El Morro rocked! I also picked up a discounted T-shirt at the gift shop that memorialized the U.S. Army’s “Camel Corps,” whose namesakes often passed by the rock and oasis. (I’d known about the Camel Corps via a connection to the Siege of Vicksburg, via a presentation I checked out during a marking of the Civil War Sesquicentennial of 2011 at the Vicksburg National Military Park.)

grand canyon to la posada

The photo above was taken at the historic La Posda Hotel in Winslow AZ toward the end of Day 3 of my mid-June 2020 trip through northern sections of Arizona and New Mexico. It seemed to me, when planning the trip, that this would be an appropriately grand place to stay after a first visit to the Grand Canyon. I wasn’t disappointed.

Before getting there, however, I had one other big thing to do at the Grand Canyon: Get out at dawn, take photos, and then hike down into the canyon a bit.

I’d looked at several trails, including the South Kaibab Trail. It was clear that I would have to get up early early to see anything, and that shuttle buses could take me anywhere starting far enough before dawn. Given how busy I expected to be, however, I decided to keep things simple and take the Bright Angel Trail, closer by foot to my hotel. I spent about 10 to 15 minutes getting photos first, spotting only one other person nearby outside of the El Tovar.

(Tip for avoiding crowds: Arizona doesn’t have Daylight Savings Time. Wake up before dawn!)

South Rim Trail near El Tovar Hotel & Mary Colter’s Hopi House, Grand Canyon National Park

I then headed over and down. Verdict: MUCH harder than I thought it was going to be, even after reading plenty about Grand Canyon trails being rough. The hike gave me a much greater appreciation for the enormity, or grandness, of the canyon, though.

From the Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon National Park
From the Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon National Park

I knew the rule about how it will take you twice as long to go back up as it did to head down, meanwhile. I wanted to get breakfast at the hotel by 8:30 to 9 a.m., at least. Consequently, by the time I got down to the 1.5 mile Resthouse, I decided to turn around. I started around 5:15 a.m., and returned around 7:45.

Getting back up was murderous, but I felt decent enough, and promptly ordered a room service breakfast. I headed out to Flagstaff by 10. I stopped briefly in Williams AZ, just for photos of the old Flintstones Bedrock City place. I spent about two-and-a-half hours in Downtown Flagstaff at lunchtime, snapping photos of its many retro signs, sitting in a swank coffee shop and writing in a journal, and browsing through a fantastic bookstore and outdoors apparel and accouterments stores.

After that, I headed to Winslow (yeah, that Winslow) and La Posada. And here, there’s a connection with previous trip stops, namely, with architect and designer Mary Colter. She was behind several Grand Canyon National Park structures, including the Hopi House, the Desert View Watchtower and the Bright Angel Lodge. She also designed the landmark Painted Desert Inn at the Petrified Forest National Park.

It was not Colter’s reputation that led me to La Posada, however. It was reading about it in the context of thinking, Wow! There has to be something more interesting along the way than a $200-a-night chain hotel in Flagstaff to stay at after the Grand Canyon, but before heading to Santa Fe. Turns out there was. This hotel, a railroad era hotel renovated room-by-room beginning in the late 199s, features a mix of design elements, from the streamline moderne style of its era, along with Mission-style architecture and Navajo art. Then the property had Jacuzzi whirlpool tubs in every room (which came in handy after the canyon and Sedona area hiking.)

Oh, and a stellar restaurant, the Turquoise Room. I had more flavorful food at the restaurant here, for dinner and breakfast than anywhere else on my trip. During the one month or so I experienced a bit of the old maskless indoor life, I enjoyed being treated like a benign kingly ruler, with mega-pro gloved staff and all. (Didn’t have to dress up, though!) Makes me feel almost wistful now.

A few pics below. A day of luxuriating here, and I headed out for a purposefully slow, half-scenic route trip to Santa Fe.

Black Currant Margarita at the Turquoise Room of La Posada Hotel, Winslow AZ

Huevos Rancheros at the Turquoise Room of La Posada Hotel, Winslow AZ

oak creek + grand canyon

My right arm was feeling heavy. THAT is why it took me entirely too long to even start a new entry. The perils of hiking up trails with steep climbs, using a stick, when you live in the lowlands. Also all the driving.

(Long delay.)

OK, I bought a new mechanical keyboard and an ergonomic mouse. Then I still had to get medication for muscle inflammation in my lower right arm. After that, I had to finish an academic piece due on the first Friday in August. In the interim, so very much changed around me, making the trip of this summer seem like a distant whirlwind of a dream. I was eating indoors, not all of the time but almost every day, and not worrying about it! People did not freak me out. The news wasn’t filled with stories of infection, death, and childish outrage over masks. Imagine.

In any case, here are happier times from Day 2 of my second trip out to the southwest in the past year, this one to northern sections of Arizona and New Mexico. This day in a visit to the Grand Canyon, my first ever, and before that an early morning hike in a ridiculously beautiful trail in the Coconino National Forest near Sedona AZ.


The latter was the West Fork of Oak Creek Creek Trail, which I hopped up at 4 a.m. on Wednesday, June 9 to head out to while still at the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook AZ, about two hours away. I was hoping to get to the trail by 7. And I made it with about 8 minutes or so to spare. And when I got there, it was still a tad chilly, leaving me to keep my gloves on. It was also uncrowded, which thrilled and surprised me a bit, while also leading me to think that Grand Canyon National Park was not going to be as uncrowded as everyone and every website said it might. So parking that afternoon would likely not be much of an issue, was my thought, basing my hunch on how much more crowded parts of Zion were early even amid what was then a seeming height of the pandemic. (I was correct!)

I thought I might be able to visit Sedona, but did not have time once finishing this nearly 7-mile long trail through Oak Creek Cayon. I’d seen this trail in guides, however, and thought it looked like it could provide enough of a red rocks experience, while also being more green-and-shade-intensive than what I was seeing of trails around the city proper. It ended up being the perfect choice, I think, practically idyllic. The only thing you can’t experience in these photos is having to walk over a creek about eight times when carrying a camera over your neck, and carrying a hiking pole. Also the wondering of, How much longer to the end? Then the occasionally swatting of bugs and such. Also the questions I kept asking myself, such as, Should I take the 97th photo, or what?

I made it back to Flagstaff around 11:15-ish, stopping for lunch there at a little bakery and coffee place on Historic Route 66, the appropriately named (for me at least) Eat ‘n’ Run Route 66 Cafe. Super-friendly staff, one server mega-charming, OK food but great coffee. Then it was up to the Grand Canyon, which I entered from the eastern side, instead of the more heavily trafficked southern entrance. The first stop: Desert View, right after the Grand Canyon becomes the Grand Canyon, as opposed to the river gorge you could see on the way in.

This was a pretty crowded stop, but not unmanageable or overwhelming. I still got to see a father walking ahead of me be jerk-ey to his children, a la answering “No!” to every question they had, including, “Daddy can we get some ice cream?” In my head, I was thinking, in all caps, just like this: THEY’RE AT THE GRAND CANYON, LET THEM HAVE ICE CREAM!

It took me a half-hour to get to Grand Canyon Village from there, where I’d be staying the night, the historic El Tovar Hotel (built just prior to the park’s opening, by the Fred Harvey Company and the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway (now the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe), a duo that shall come up in a later post. I couldn’t get a parking place at my hotel, but drove right up to an open spot a block away. I soon checked in, checked my dinner reservation, looked out my window at fellow tourists and the canyon’s edge for a bit, then took a nap. Then it was time for dinner at 5:30 p.m., the only time I could get within my range. (There, I heard a kid telling his family trivia about rats, his favorite numbers, and “high-end” Mandarin classes.)

My dinner was followed by a trip back out to the Desert View area for the Golden Hour. I’d done my research here, and wasn’t disappointed. No giant crowds.

Desert View, Grand Canyon National Park

That was it! Well, except for the drive back. I left after sunset, but I could see a bit of blue sky all the way to Grand Canyon Village, where I finally saw completely dark skies. There were plenty of spaces in the El Tovar lot. (I saw so much ragging on the South Rim area, before and after my visit, for crowds and parking problems. I experienced no big problems.) The drive through the park was strangely beautiful. I listened to Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives’ “Way Out West” as an accompaniment. The drive will stick with me for a while, like so many this time.

holbrook & the wigwam

The time passed much faster this time than in my last trip out west. Or it seemed like it did, and not just because I could only spend so much time in the Wigwam Motel, a Route 66 classic, on my first night. My first night of the trip!

The main reason: People. Unlike in December, when I traveled to largely desert or at least especially dry parts of California, Nevada, and Utah via, on the way out, I saw more of them. There were far more people at the Jackson airport for sure. And though I went through the Hobby Airport in Houston for a connecting flight this time rather than Atlanta, I presume the former’s crowds meant that ATL was similarly crowded. Last time the latter’s trams were practically deserted at noon on a Tuesday.

While I engaged in only one really extended conversation with anyone, however, the latest trip was a more detailed small talk-intensive venture. And I chatted with people with masks off, in commercial settings galore, in lines, crowded shuttle buses, and packed aircraft. I waited on food inside restaurants. Some people I know had been doing the same for months, but not me. My trip was a heavy dose of interaction with strangers, engagement of a sort I hadn’t experienced in months.

At the same time, though, having more stops planned, and more hours in the day to see things, also probably helped push the time along, in a sense. I mean, as soon as I could get out of the Albuquerque Int’l Sunport rental car center, with a rental company’s 1980s dot matrix printer (no app-driven Silvercar rental available this time, alas) and a 15-minute wait at an exit and such, I was set out to explore. An hour-and-a-half later, I was on a scenic route starting from an exit near Grants NM, headed toward the second-largest natural arch in the state–La Ventana, part of the surrounding El Malpais National Conservation Area.

La Ventana Natural Arch, near Grants NM

A Melted Earth Turned Blue: Petrified Forest NP

After that, I headed as quickly as I could to Petrified Forest National Park, about another two hours west of Grant. Getting there soon was essential, given that the park closes to traffic in the evening, due to the threat of the theft of crystallized wood. I knew that much, and that the park contains a section of the Painted Desert and a National Register building, the Painted Desert Inn, by architect and designer Mary Colter (more on her in a later entry). Otherwise, I had no idea what to expect.

The Painted Desert? Loved it, took 15 gazillion photos. And I almost started off on a hike into it, below the Painted Desert Inn. I stopped myself only because I feared staying past closing time, then headed to the southern part of the park, below I-40 (which follows old Route 66, part of which is in the park). A good 20 minutes or so later, it looked like the earth had melted and turned different shades of blue.

Do stop here if you’re ever driving I-40 out west. The crowds were not as thin as I expected, but I never felt hemmed in or overwhelmed by people. There is more variety here than you’d expect, and I barely had time to explore that much of the park. I barely stopped, say, at trail full of crystallized petrified wood.

Blue Mesa, Petrified Forest National Park

A Bucket of Blood, and So Much More (Say, Dinos)

Next stop: The nearest town, Holbrook, a place chock-a-block with old Route 66 color, kitsch, and a bit of Old West history–like, say, the Bucket of Blood Saloon story and street.

A little P.S.: If you ever find yourself in Holbrook, and you like sake, be sure to stop by any local liquor store and look for Arizona Sake. A liquor owner told me a brief version of the story behind the brewery, but Atlas Obscura gets into more detail.

I wish I could slow down the days, except for the parts where I’m dealing with heat, traffic, and such, and spend more time in, say, the Mexican place from which I took the above. The moments were all too fleeting, after all the planning, or so it seemed this time. I’ll always have the photos and memories of the Wigwam Motel–a Route 66 classic–and environs, though. Maybe I’ll put a few on the wall, extend the tour in my head.

A couple more of those Wigwam shots. Why not?

southwest pt 2

Coming over the next two weeks or so: An account of what was, to me, an extension of the trip I took to the southwest in December 2020. That one took me to Death Valley, the Mojave in Nevada and California, and Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks in southeastern Utah.

That trip, however, was taken at the seeming apex of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, back when the airports were uncrowded, Delta had empty seats on purpose, and I barely talked to a soul while mostly eating take-out meals, or eats from food trucks and room service. I completely avoided going into retail establishments or public spaces in any city, including Las Vegas and St. George, Utah.

The environment in June 2020 was dramatically different. I ate inside quite a times, sat inside coffee shops and breweries, went to book stores, retail establishments, and galleries and museums. I talked with people more.

I carried over some experiences from the pandemic era into what seemed like a new one (but ultimately was not), however, most notably: Glamping and staying at more interesting places—say, the RV above in Taos NM. I ate outdoors and did the room service thing a bit too, and cooked on my own twice.

I’ve put my thoughts together on the trip, and the idea of a post-pandemic world and such, in posts below:

Holbrook & the Wigwam

Oak Creek + Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon to La Posada

El Morro & West-Central New Mexico

until non-pandemic time

After leaving the diner in Hurricane UT (and what a name for a town!), referenced in the last entry, and a brief stop for coffee at the edge of nearby St. George UT, I headed into Nevada again, this time for two last stops. The first: The Whole Foods on the Strip in Las Vegas. The second: A dude ranch in the Mojave, about 45 minutes south of the city on I-15.

I would be bypassing Vegas altogether, really, except for needed foodstuffs. I only needed some place to get things to cook, and the Whole Foods location near the Strip casinos and the airport was perfect. It also wasn’t at all crowded, so I managed to pick up a New York Strip steak, asparagus, butter, and one tall beer for the night in short order. The objective was to get down to the dude ranch and cook at a place I was staying there, while having enough time to see a sunset. I made it.

That place was a tipi, a glamping setup, on the property of Sandy Valley Ranch, located about three miles south of the Nevada border in San Bernadino County CA, about 30 miles from the Mojave National Preserve. It was located on a piece of land behind the ranch house, along with a (then-taken) tiny house and such.

I wouldn’t say that the place was wildly glamorous if you expect that with the “glamping” name. But the tipi and deck had all the cooking utensils I needed properly cook and cut a steak, along with a propane stove and a fridge for butter and the beer and such. It also featured an outdoor shower, a fire pit, and a couch and chairs on the deck, then a heated mattress and plenty of thick Navajo blankets and such inside the tipi.

I won’t say that any one part of the night stood out as The Highlight. The sunset, however, clearly made for the most dramatic shot. And I did not notice the big red line for a bit, being busy with moving things around and starting the fire and all. Once I did notice, I went immediately for the camera. Otherwise, I cooked a steak while a ranch dog longingly looked on, read on a big red couch next to a fire, looked at the stars in the remarkably clear desert sky, and so forth. Then I went to sleep, with the assistance of a propane heater (safe to use with a smoke and carbon monoxide alarm inside) and a heated mattress, along with a Navajo blanket. I still struggled to keep warm, but loved every second of the experience.

The next morning, just after sunrise, I thought maybe my lucky streak on this strip had finally come to an end, given that the shower wouldn’t turn on. Oh well, I thought, I can at least get a shower at the Concourse F lounge in Atlanta, since I planned to go there again Wednesday (December 9, specifically). Even so, I called the owner, who figured the pipes must have frozen, and he sent me over the then-empty ranch house for a shower. So all worked out fine.

I used an extra K-cup from a hotel to make coffee in an old pot. Worked out beautifully. The cup I had felt like the best in a long, long time, given the bitterly cold morning. Then I finished packing and headed out.

I was a tad worried when my smartphone, after sitting on deck while I had a shower, wouldn’t fully turn on afterward. But within a couple of minutes inside the car, it was going again. Then came the Joshua trees with Christmas decorations on them, one after the other on the way back to I-15, and I started cackling, while making sure to pull over and get at least one photo.

If U2 ever gives up and releases a holiday album, one of these trees could be on the front cover– say, “The Christmas Joshua Tree,” featuring the hit single, “I Still Haven’t Found the Gift That I’m Looking For.” (A friend sad another single could be, “Where the Malls Have No Name.”)

And that was it for the trip. I watched “Singin’ in the Rain” on the plane back to Atlanta, and had a nice margarita and such at the Delta Sky Deck. Really, though, that was it.

Maybe I’ll have some thoughts on COVID and travel later, and on funding for and treatment of national and state parks and such, or climate change. You never know. I did write in a journal entry that I wondered a couple of years ago if I’d gotten back into travel via a middle-class salary just as all the fun would be ending, thanks to political and possibly economic instability and climate change (even a budding backlash against air travel pre-COVID thanks to the latter).

Maybe I could extend that idea into an entry down the line? Hmm. Otherwise, this is it for now.