Buckle up, folks. I’ve been awfully busy having some crazy adventures lately that I’ve had no time to sit down in front of a computer to do much of anything, which I’ve actually found quite liberating. But it’s been a long two blog-post-less weeks and I have a lot to talk about. For the first time ever on this blog, it’s nothing but good stuff this time.
So. I really didn’t give the Southwest much thought when I booked the tour. The cities are spread out too far, we’re going to put too many miles on the van, etc. I was mostly indifferent about going west of Texas, to tell you the truth. But I’ve never been more happy to be wrong about somewhere. I’ve never been to the desert before, and it is unbelievably beautiful out here. It’s been many years since I’ve seen mountains with any regularity, and here they’re framed by these vast open plains and dusty fields and red cliffs and the biggest, bluest sky.
We had a blast in Amarillo before we got out here, too. Our High Plains Public Radio interview went phenomenally (it’s available here on SoundCloud if you’d like to listen) and has sparked an interest in doing a lot more of those going forward – radio is fun. At shows we have to say things to entertain the crowd, but in a good interview you can talk about what matters in your songs and the highs and lows of the trip and put some substance into things.
Post-interview, at the insistence of the host of the show, we went out to Palo Duro Canyon State Park – the second biggest canyon in the country. This place literally took our breath away. Neither Greg or myself had ever seen anything like it. And like most things out here, you absolutely can’t capture its depth and massive size in a photo taken on a cell phone. Palo Duro has over 250 miles of canyons, and we drove the van right down into them and hiked around for a bit. Our first real foray into the outdoors since the start of the tour. I can’t tell you how much I loved it. We rounded off our stay in Amarillo with a Tuesday night pizza-parlor show of all original tunes; a rarity for us and truthfully a bit tough to do, as we don’t really have that many originals as a duo just yet.
After Amarillo we headed into New Mexico. We spent a beautiful couple days in some campgrounds out in the absolute middle of the desert. New Mexico is very yellow-y in the more remote areas, and the two campgrounds we stayed at both had these giant blue lakes right in the middle of the desert. I wish pictures could capture the amazing view we had as well as the human eye does. It was unbelievably beautiful. We had this frustration with the mountains as well; they just don’t photograph as well as you want them to. Looking at them from the highway, they consume the horizon and rise out of the ground like these unmistakable geological giants. In photos, they look like black smudges against the tawny ground. You really have to come out here to get a sense of the beauty of this place.
Between our two campground stays we spent quite a bit of time in Albuquerque. We got a better taste of this city than we do most. The first night I treated us to some authentic New Mexican cuisine (its pretty darn similar to Mexican food, with slight variations in the ingredients and a focus particularly on red & green sauces). I got tamales – one of my favorite meals – and they were so good and came in such a huge portion I had leftovers to eat for three days. If you find yourself in New Mexico, go to Sadie’s – and put the honey on the sopapillas, it’s amazing.
The second day we did some more hiking into the Petroglyph National Monument. This is a site where hundreds of rock drawings done by original settlers of the land have been preserved. A pretty cool way to kill an afternoon – looking back into history that far really makes you think and appreciate a place just a little more. And it was kind of fun to spot the petroglyphs as we walked along the path – I’m sure we missed more than we saw, there’s supposedly hundreds.
The third day we went into Old Town Albuquerque. We very rarely venture into cities anymore, but with nothing else to do and lots of van-accessible parking lots, we decided to brave it. Very worth it in my opinion, it’s a very neat part of the city with a lot of incredible food and really interesting shops with stuff you can’t find anywhere else in the country. We had a blast just walking around and window shopping. We ended the day with Baja-fusion cuisine and margarita. Mine was prickly pear flavored and it was damn good (a bit like a strawberry-watermelon flavor hybrid).
We were supposed to have two shows in New Mexico, but sadly one of the venues had a huge fire days before our scheduled show. So we got to kick off April with our only show in the state in Santa Fe, and on Easter, too. It was a pretty typical bar gig for us with a surprisingly solid crowd despite the holiday. We picked up some pretty cool art for the van from an artist we met at that gig, which is currently hanging over our bench seat. Overall a very solid night for us.
On our way out of New Mexico I recall telling Greg that this might be the coolest scenery we’d be seeing on this tour.
And then we drove into Arizona.
This is when I noticed that the problem with the New Mexico mountains is that they just weren’t big enough.
Everything New Mexico has, Arizona seems to have times ten. The mountains are easily double the size and photograph a whole lot better, the sunsets were out of this world, even the cacti were bigger. (Those iconic saguaro cacti you’ve seen on all the postcards? The big ones are like fifty feet tall and weigh thousands of pounds. Apparently they fall and crush cars sometimes).
Our entire time in Southern Arizona was spent in Phoenix with some musician friends of ours who also live out of an RV! Savannah and Drew were incredible hosts for our few days in the city. Each of us had a show over the three days we were in town, and it was awesome to be able to go to their shows and have them at ours as well. On top of the fantastic music, they gave us a great taste of the local food (I literally cannot stop thinking about the carne asada burrito I had last week) and an amazing trip out into the Arizona wilderness. Friday morning we headed out into Tonto National Forest for some backwoods boondocking.
Before we went out to our camping spot, our hosts took us to the Lower Salt River for some hiking. Not only were the views spectacular and some of the best I’ve personally ever seen on a hike, we were also lucky enough to encounter an entire herd of wild horses hanging out at the lake. They ran straight into the water from the shore maybe twenty feet from us after we ended our hike. Apparently Savannah and Drew have been trying to come across some wild horses for years – I can’t tell you how privileged Greg and I felt to see them on our first trip.
Our campsite was out in BLM land, which is entirely public and basically free for anyone to use. We had the Four Peaks mountain range directly in view of the campsite. To say it was pretty incredible would be an understatement. We had a really great evening of more delicious food, wine, and great company under some incredible stars. And to be able to talk about the struggles of van life with another musician couple was incredibly liberating and enjoyable – turns out most of the issues we tend to encounter are pretty typical among people who travel like us! Savannah and Drew – if you guys read this, thanks again for an absolutely awesome couple of days!
Our gig in Phoenix was our last night in town. I was worried about this one as we were billed with a singer songwriter from the UK and we were playing a coffeehouse on a Saturday night. Incredibly, the other artist actually had heaps of family in the area and the room was packed. The gig was unique in that they don’t allow any amplification equipment- it’s a bit like singing songs around a very intently listening campfire. It was a bit unnerving not to have microphones, but I think once we settled into our groove we had a great night.
We basically ran out of Phoenix on Sunday morning to do a podcast before our show in Flagstaff. Colton of Proud to Present Podcast may have hosted the most enjoyable interview Greg and I have ever done. Not only was it short and lighthearted, but he and his lovely wife actually made us breakfast after we got done with our interview. I continue to be shocked at the hospitality and genuinely good people that we continue to encounter out in the world. (When the podcast is live I’ll link it here for those of you who would like to listen).
We drove out of Southern Arizona early that morning headed for Flagstaff. To our utter surprise, not too far outside of Phoenix the desert scenery rapidly begins to change into a massive forest. Flagstaff is apparently on a mountain, and by the time you reach the top of it you would swear you left Arizona hours ago. It looks exactly as I have imagined Colorado would, with these towering pine trees and much cooler temperatures and mountain air. The speed with which the entire environment changes between those towns just two and a a half hours apart is pretty crazy.
All that being said, Flagstaff was awesome and we had an incredible gig there. We played at Flagstaff Brewing Company (right on Route 66!) early on Sunday to a great crowd. Honestly it was one of my favorite tour dates yet and I absolutely plan to play there again on our next time through.
The next day we drove out of Flagstaff. I again remember thinking “Okay, surely that’s it. We’ve seen the coolest scenery we’re going to see and it cannot possibly get any cooler.”
And then we went to the Grand Canyon.
Let me preface this by saying I feel that I’ve seen quite a bit in my 23 measly years. I’ve seen both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. I’ve been in the Redwood forests, I’ve seen the Gulf of Mexico, I’ve swam in the waters of the Bahamas and I’ve climbed the Eiffel Tower. And I’ve seen quite a bit of the US now thanks to this tour, and I feel like I’m starting to get a tentative grasp on all the wonderful things this country has to offer.
That being said, without a doubt, the Grand Canyon is the most spectacular thing I have ever seen.
It honestly doesn’t look completely real, even when you’re standing on the edge of it. If there was anything photographs truly could not do justice to, this is that one thing. It’s so incredibly massive that you have to get in your car and drive miles just to get a slightly different view. It’s truly indescribable. Palo Duro, as the second largest canyon, doesn’t even come remotely close to this. Everyone in the world should come see this place just once, it would be a shame to die without doing so.
Greg and I decided to take it one step further than most people do and actually hike down inside the canyon. We chose the Bright Angel trail as we didn’t have more than a few hours to spend hiking, with our goal being the mile and a half rest house, the first and supposedly easiest to reach. The hike down was quite honestly no problem; when gravity is doing half the work for you, nothing is too terribly difficult. The hike back out was incredibly challenging for people who are in only passable physical shape like we are. But we did get to eat lunch over 5700 feet below the canyon rim, which is something not a lot of people can say they’ve ever done. Next time we come back though, we’re going all the way to the bottom (on mules).
Neither of us really wanted to leave the Grand Canyon this morning – we did steal a couple last looks on our way out. Since then, we’ve made the drive up to Grand Junction Colorado, and while it doesn’t quite compare, the scenery out here has been nothing to balk at either. The towering red rocks of both Northern Arizona and Utah combined with the sprawling expanded of wide open space is truly awe inspiring.
Let it be known that now, I do think the coolest scenery of the trip is actually behind us. (Colorado, you are welcome to prove me wrong if you like.)
As usual I’m sure I’ve missed some details I would have liked to have included. But I don’t think it matters too much, because I know without a doubt we’ll be back in this part of the country many, many more times.
We’re just over two months away from heading back to Buffalo. Not that it won’t be nice to be home for a bit, but… I wish this tour was a year long and half of it was being spent in the Southwest. Next time around, maybe it will be.
My legs are sore from hiking. We’re almost out of drinking water (again). Half of our belongings are covered in a thin layer of red dust. Gas is over $3 a gallon out here. But now I couldn’t imagine living any other way, or what took me so long to get out here in the first place.