Nawlins

On our way to New Orleans, we stayed one night in Baton Rouge. We did not have a chance to explore the city centre, but dropped into a couple bars, including the oldest blues bar in the city. It was blues jam night, which was effectively open-mic but included a full backing band (who knew all the standards) if you needed.

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Blues Jam and the loyal fans at Phil Brady’s in Baton Rouge.

Our weekend in New Orleans was a ton of fun. The city itself is gorgeous – even far outside the touristy areas the streets are lined with classic southern homes and mossy oak trees. The French Quarter is non-stop Creole townhouses with plant-lined second story balconies. It’s easy to picture Mardi Gras revelers tossing beads and spilling drinks from there.

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The city’s famous cemeteries use above-ground burial plots/mausoleums due to the swampy soil. Some of the earlier monuments use French text.

Outside the city, we were able to take an airboat tour through the bayou. The area is not pristine – there are pipelines and remnants of past industry scattered around – but it was a very different and beautiful nature scene for us.

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Bayou!
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One of our companion airboats.

Our guide was able to spot a few 4 ft. gators in the swamp, and eventually pulled out a baby gator to be passed around the boat for photo opportunities.

Back in the city, our stomachs and livers were treated to an onslaught of cajun delights: shrimp po-boys, gumbo, fried oyster po-boys (found a pearl in one!), crusted fish, étouffée, beignets, boudin, and even free jambalaya from a neighbourhood bar!

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Beignets at Café du Monde, served with a mountain of icing sugar.

We mostly kept our drinks classy, including a Sazerac at the famous Carousel bar. However, we also spent an evening enjoying the general chaos on Bourbon Street along with its sugary selection of drinks, namely the Hurricane and the Hand Grenade.

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“New Orleans’ most powerful drink!”
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Carousel Bar. It spins at one revolution every 15 minutes. Sadly we had to settle for seats off to the side. See if you can spot Wendy in the oval mirror!

Live music is ubiquitous throughout the city – there’s even plenty of options for jazz brunch. We stayed on Frenchmen Street a few blocks north of a ton of jazz clubs and visited that neighbourhood one night to catch a local brass band.

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Panorama Brass Band at dba.

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Don’t mess with Texas

Things are different in Texas. Oil pumps are scattered throughout the farm fields, they play Christian rock at McDonald’s, and roosters crow to wake you up after sleeping in the back of your van.

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We spent one night in Lubbock, TX on Saturday November 3 before heading to Austin on Sunday. We checked into our cheap motel and quickly made our way to the reportedly hip East 6th Street area. We started the evening with a visit to the Rollin’ Smoke food truck for our first ever taste of Texas barbecue. It was not a life changing experience, but it turns out brisket is actually pretty delicious, and so is smoked mac n’ cheese! We spent the rest of the evening bar hopping, with the Yellow Jacket Social Club being the highlight.

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Zilker Brewing Co.
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Austin is certainly a distinctive, artsy city, especially within Texas, but the mandatory hip neighbourhood condos should probably get a better name than “indie”.

On Monday we walked downtown, passing by the Texas State Capitol. The building is quintessentially American, and is even slightly taller than the national capitol building (everything is bigger in…).

Next we visited the Mexic-Arte Museum, which had exhibits about Dia de los Muertos and the Matachines dance/celebration. In addition to plenty of excellent Day of the Dead art, the museum had a handful of ofrendas set up for artists and loved ones. In the Matachines exhibit, we learned that some Mexican cultural practices such as this date back to pre-Columbian times, but were re-purposed by the colonial Spaniards to honour Christianity. In this case, the dance told the story of the Christians fighting the Moors.

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Next we stopped into the small but well-stocked Austin Toy Museum.

Since our motel was only a few blocks away, on Tuesday we decided to try Franklin barbecue, the highest rated barbecue joint in Austin. We arrived at 11:45am to see a long line out the door (including folks settling in with lawn chairs) and were promptly told they might sell out before we got to the front. Rather than wait around for an hour and a half to find out, we drove down to the Austin Beer Garden Brewing Company. With the midterm elections taking place, we saw plenty of Beto O’Rourke t-shirts (and not a single piece of Ted Cruz paraphernalia), highlighting the division between Austin and the rest of Texas.

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That night we returned to East 6th Street to drop into a free blues dancing lesson at the local honky tonk bar. We were not naturals. We listened to the live band that followed and remained seated while the local patrons showed off their dance skills.

Wednesday we drove down to Houston to visit the NASA Johnson Space Centre. The amount of original equipment on display for the public was amazing – we saw a full Saturn V rocket built for the Apollo missions, walked through the Boeing 747 used to carry the Space Shuttles, touched pieces of the Moon and Mars, and walked along an Orbiter Access Arm (bridge and white room used by astronauts to access the Space Shuttle).

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Original Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft and a shuttle model.

On a recommendation from a friend, we drove down to San Leon to get some barbecued oysters for dinner. Given Texas’ gulf coast and its love of smoked animals, we should have realised this was inevitable. They were delicious!

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La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asís

AKA “Santa Fe”.

When leaving Colorado, we assumed we were finished with the high altitude living, but it turns out Santa Fe resides at 7200 ft! Aside from the adobe-style architecture, we knew very little about Santa Fe prior to our visit. We learned that the city has a long history and is now a major arts destination.

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Santa Fe: lots of art and adobe buildings.

The city was established by Spanish colonizers and was made a provincial capital in 1610. The Palace of Governors was built that year and is the oldest continuously occupied public building in the United States. The San Miguel church, built around the same time, is the oldest known church in the United Sates.

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San Miguel church – the oldest church in the United States.

Santa Fe was briefly controlled by native Pueblo people after a revolt against the Spaniards in 1680, but was retaken by Spain in 1692. Later, the city was a territorial capital of Mexico before the United Sates took control of the area after their war with Mexico.

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Famous staircase at the Loretto Chapel. When the Chapel was first built, they forgot to install a staircase up to the choir loft. According to legend, an unknown man passed through town and miraculously built this spiral staircase that has no vertical support beams. The sisters at the chapel credit St. Joseph with its construction.

Our first night in town, we walked past a few of the notable buildings and then enjoyed some incredibly spicy enchiladas for dinner. It seems New Mexico is known for their chili peppers.

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Chili peppers and the Palace of the Governors

The next day we visited the Georgia O’Keefe art museum. We learned that she spent time annually in New Mexico and then moved there permanently after her husband died. While not as famous as her floral works, she made some fascinating paintings capturing the desert aesthetic of the American southwest. Scattered throughout the gallery were photographs by Jo Whaley, whose works were contrasted and compared with O’Keefe’s.

That afternoon we visited Meow Wolf, an immersive art installation that also doubles as a sort of haunted house and escape room. The artist team constructed a fully furnished family home with gateways to a surrounding “multiverse” and clues (diaries, newspapers, YouTube videos) about what happened to the family. Very cool experience!

On our way to Texas, we decided to make a quick stop in Roswell to visit the International UFO Museum and Research Centre. There were tons of newspaper clippings and personal accounts of the incident there in 1947, as well as a few fun alien installations.

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“I want to believe.”
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A handy guide for your next encounter.

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Mesa Verde

Our last stop in Colorado was at Mesa Verde National Park. We learned that this area was home to thousands of Puebloan people for at least 700 years. The earliest ground structures in the park are from about 600 to 650 CE.

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Jean LeCastor visits Mesa Verde.

It seems the Puebloan people were constantly experimenting with new construction techniques, and even built a 90 ft. diameter reservoir to store water in the dry climate. Around 1200 CE they decided to build cliff dwellings and move down there from the plains. We did not discover the reason behind this move, but we theorized that it was because small springs at the cliffs were an important water source.

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“Square Tower House” features the tallest tower of all the structures in the park.
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The trees on the plains above the cliff dwellings have not yet recovered from a 2002 wildfire.

Apparently the Puebloan people migrated towards Arizona around 1300 CE, so the cliff dwellings were only in use for about a century.

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“Cliff Palace” is the largest cliff dwelling in the park. We are told it would have been used to social and ceremonial purposes.

Unfortunately we were not able to wander the cliff dwellings as all the tours were done for the season. Instead we hiked along the edge of Spruce Canyon to an impressive petroglyph wall.

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Dandy petroglyphs.

We also spotted maintenance crews working to reinforce the structures at Spruce Tree House.

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Big crane is big.

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The Springs of Colorado

Starting Thursday October 25 we had a five-day visit with our friends Sarah and Lee in Colorado Springs. Situated right next to the Rocky Mountains, Colorado Springs is a gorgeous area with red sandstone canyon-type parks adjacent to the snow-tipped Pike’s Peak. The city is also home to an army base, an air force base, and an air force academy, so not exactly a hippie town.

We did a ton of hiking during our visit, though mostly at a slow pace due to our sea-level lungs working at high altitude. On Friday we wandered Garden of the Gods, a rocky park within the city limits of Colorado Springs. The park is extremely popular so we were lucky to visit on a workday.

Saturday we checked out Red Rock Canyon Open Space (not to be confused with Red Rocks amphitheatre up in Denver…. which was lacking worthwhile concerts while we were in the area).

Sunday was a relatively lazy day, so we just hiked up into the hills next to Sarah and Lee’s home, part of Blodgett Peak Open Space. Monday made for the longest hike of our trip yet – we walked about 18km round trip through Picket Wire Canyon, which is home to the largest dinosaur footprint site in North America! The site would have been next to a lake 150 million years ago and mainly contains brontosaurus and allosaurus prints.

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Cool cacti on the walk through Picket Wire Canyon.
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If you cross the river, you can see even more dino prints! We were not brave enough to make the crossing, unlike Sarah and Lee (whose shadows can be seen on the river here).

Aside from hiking, we did plenty of eating and drinking during our visit. There was Malaysian take-out, homemade cauliflower sandwiches and deep dish pizza, burgers at The Skirted Heifer (previously featured on Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives), an unreal brunch at Garden of the Gods Cafe, and some amazing Cuban food from Pig Latin. On Saturday night we decided to get into the Halloween spirit with some last-minute make-up and visits to a handful of downtown Colorado Springs’ bars.

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boo.

Happy Halloween!

 

 

Eastern Utah to Denver

On Monday October 22 we made our way to Capital Reef National Park, home to a 100-mile long rock wall formation called the Waterpocket Fold. We stopped here mainly out of geographic convenience, but there was a nice scenic drive and some petroglyphs to check out. The campground also had tons of orchards (originally planted by early Mormon settlers) and a shop selling fresh pies every day. Tuesday breakfast naturally consisted of pumpkin pie and whipped cream.

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Capital Reef National Park
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Petroglyphs at Captal Reef, carved into the rock wall between 600 and 1300 AD. Look to the right and left of the missing chunk.

Our last canyon-style visit was to the Arches National Park in eastern Utah on Tuesday. As the name suggests, the park is home to a large number of natural sandstone arches. The density of the arch formations here seems to be due to some complex geological story involving salt beds and ancient seas and millions of years of erosion. The park was gorgeous and extremely popular even in the off-season – it was difficult to snap a picture of any of the distinctive arches without a handful of other visitors in the shot.

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Balance Rock at Arches National Park
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“The Windows”
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Double Arch!
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“Delicate Arch”
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Petrified sand dunes and the La Sal Mountains.

Due to the popularity, the in-park campground was full and we camped instead at a bare-bones first-come first-served campsite along the Colorado river. We know to come prepared with drinking water and are used to camping with pit toilets, but this was the first time the pit toilet had no door nor roof.

On Wednesday we drove east to Denver, driving the Vail pass through the Rocky Mountains, taking us above 10,000 ft elevation for the first time on our trip.

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Vail is not yet open for skiing.

The two-mile high traffic jam to enter the tunnel before the descent into Denver was a little anxiety-inducing for Dan, so that night we made our way to TRVE Brewing to calm our nerves. They specialize in mixed culture fermentation beers and heavy metal, making for an ideal experience for Dan.

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TRVE Brewing

Before heading down to Colorado Springs on Thursday, we felt compelled to visit the real-world Casa Bonita and relive Cartman’s experience in South Park. The food was sub-par (our enchiladas were delivered from a cafeteria within seconds of ordering), but the atmosphere and entertainment were spot-on. Even during the quiet weekday lunch hour, there are divers and western-style shootouts performed every 15 minutes.

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Canyonero!

Over a five day span, we visited Zion Canyon, Grand Canyon, and Bryce Canyon.

We only had one night at Zion, so we did a quick hike to the Canyon Overlook when we arrived Wednesday evening, and then hiked the Watchman trail Thursday morning before hitting the road again.

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Canyon Overlook at Zion.
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Wendy below the Watchman peak.
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The little flat formation on top is called the West Temple.

On the drive down to the Grand Canyon, we made a quick stop at the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. At 710 ft, it’s almost as tall as the Hoover Dam, and is slightly wider.

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Damn big dam.

When we pulled into the Grand Canyon park, we were shocked to see patches of snow on the ground! It looked like some parking lots had even been plowed recently. Before checking into our motel, we stopped at the Desert View lookout point. As famous as the Grand Canyon is, we were still amazed by the sheer size of the chasm.

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Desert View at Grand Canyon. The tower was built in the 1930s using stones from the canyon.

We spent Friday morning hiking the South Kaibab trail to Cedar Point, about 1000 ft down into the canyon. The drop from the rim to the river is about one vertical mile, and it was heavily suggested you not make the return hike in a single day.

 

 

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This is what happens if you’re too hardcore.
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Cedar Point

In the afternoon we caught the shuttle to various lookout points and walked along the rim trail. We learned that conservationists have been working successfully to repopulate the California Condor, though we were not able to spot any of these massive birds. We did however see about fifty elk (only almost hit one) as well as several mule deer.

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Cool lookin’ flora.

On Saturday we drove back north into Utah, making a quick stop at Horseshoe Bend, and then into Bryce Canyon National Park. We planned on hiking all day Sunday, following the rim trail and then hiking the Queen’s Garden and Navajo loop down into the amphitheatre. Unfortunately about 45 minutes into our walk, we got soaked by a thunderstorm.

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Horseshoe Bend in the Colorado River.
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Bryce Canyon. Notice the storm approaching at the left.
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Hoodoos!

After a break at our motel to dry off and nap until the rain died down, we returned to Bryce for a late afternoon walk.

 

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Erosion washed away the soil, but the roots held strong.

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