Sunday, February 24, 2002

winter break + Southwest U.S. trip report

Those who read my blog may remember that my family went to the American Southwest during the Christmas season a little over a year ago. That trip was so much fun that we decided to go to the Southwest again during winter break!

Like the December 2000 trip, this one was also a week long; the three of us left two Saturdays ago and came back last Friday. The previous trip was only 14 months ago, but this one was still extremely fun as we visited mostly new places. Below is the obligatory trip report. :-)

Day 1

Our adventures began with an afternoon flight to Denver. It was pretty late when we arrived, so we bought some sandwiches at McDonald's while waiting for our connecting flight to Albuquerque. The second flight was relatively short, but the numerous security measures that were put in place following the 9/11 attacks have made the boarding process much longer.

Dad picked up our rental SUV at the airport before driving us to his friend Chih-Yue's house in Los Alamos. It was already past 11:00 p.m. when we got there, but none of us wanted to go to bed just yet because we were all too excited. After all, this was our first time seeing the Kao family in years. Chih-Yue brought out some snacks, and all of us chatted for a good while before finally calling it a night.

Day 2

The Kao family took us to several local stops, the first of which was the Bradbury Science Museum at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The museum was really cool; it had life-sized models of various atomic bombs, as well as many other neat exhibits. Speaking of which, Chih-Yue actually works at LANL as a climate researcher, so my parents and I were fascinated by his job. Even though his work did not involve nuclear weapons, the Wen Ho Lee incident was nonetheless a major subject of our conversations.

The other point of interest was Valles Caldera National Preserve, the site of an ancient volcanic caldera. It wasn't anything more than a dry lake bed, so all we did there was take a few pictures. The morning ended with a nice lunch at the local Pizza Hut. The Meat Lover's pizza was just delicious.

I spent the rest of the day playing video games with the Kaos' children, Aaron and Samantha. The three of us mostly played Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy X on their PlayStation 2, although we also got in a few rounds of TimeSplitters later in the evening. I'm a bit embarrassed to say this, but I think Tifa from Final Fantasy VII and Yuna from Final Fantasy X are kind of hot. *blush*

Day 3

As much as we enjoyed their company, it was time to say goodbye to the Kao family as we had other places to go. It seems two nights in Los Alamos just weren't enough. :-(

When I was younger, my family would often participate in the Buddhist ceremonies at the Fa Yun Monastery in Danville, California. We stopped going there in favor of a closer temple (the Gold Sage Monastery in San Jose) after a few years, and the Fa Yun Monastery eventually moved to Taos. As we happened to be here in New Mexico, my parents figured we should pay them a visit.

The monastery was located high up in the mountains, and getting there was almost a spiritual journey in itself. The folks at the temple were very hospitable; they insisted that we stay for lunch, which we did. The food, albeit completely vegan, was really good. Mom felt we should give something back in return, so my parents donated a large bag of oranges they had bought earlier.

There weren't many other things to do in the area, so we headed to our hotel in Durango.

Day 4

The first stop of the day was Mesa Verde National Park. The place is famous for the cliff dwellings in which the ancient Pueblo people lived. The tour guide allowed us to go inside some of the kivas to get a glimpse of what life was like for the natives. I'm not a big fan of archaeological sites, but Mesa Verde was undoubtedly a fascinating place.

We then headed to the nearby Four Corners Monument, which marks the point where Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico intersect. This was by far the most memorable part of the trip. Dad started getting hungry at this point, so he bought some Navajo fry bread at one of the stands to share with me and Mom. Yum!

Day 5

Our day began with a side trip to Zion National Park to see the picturesque Zion Canyon. The drive through the park alone made the trip very worthwhile. Next up was Bryce Canyon National Park, which is known for its unusual rock formations called hoodoos. It was an incredible sight; Bryce Canyon is definitely one of the most underrated national parks in the United States.

Although we had been to both Zion and Bryce Canyon before, I really enjoyed visiting those two parks again. Some places just never get old. The last stop of the day was our hotel in Moab.

Day 6

This was probably the busiest day of the trip, with the first stop being Arches National Park. As its name suggests, the park is known for its many natural sandstone arches, ranging from the teeny tiny ones that are just a few feet across to the majestic Landscape Arch. There are over 2,000 of them to be exact!

But time was somewhat limited, so my parents and I only visited the best-known ones. I was tired from all the walking, so I rested in the car while my parents hiked to a vista point from which Delicate Arch was visible. I later learned this was the most famous arch in the park, and I had missed out on seeing it. This was undoubtedly my biggest regret of the trip.

The next stop was Canyonlands National Park. It was very similar to Arches National Park in the sense that it also had many natural arches. I couldn't help but wonder how many of those formations there are in the Four Corners area. Canyonlands wasn't that interesting otherwise, so we didn't stay here for very long.

Our drive brought us to Natural Bridges National Monument. The place was named for its three natural bridges, which were not unlike the arches we had seen. The only road in the monument was a one-way loop that took visitors to each of the three bridges. We turned back after seeing Sipapu Bridge because Dad was afraid we would be stranded in the monument when it closed for the evening.

I must admit that we drove the wrong way on our way out, so it's a good thing we didn't encounter any other cars. As we left the monument, it became apparent that the entrance gate was usually kept open; the three of us would have taken the time to visit all three bridges had we known about this.

It was then time to head back to Albuquerque. Our original itinerary involved driving a 102-mile stretch of Route 666 from Monticello to Shiprock. Mom felt a little uneasy traveling on a highway associated with the Number of the Beast - especially at night - so we took a detour on Route 191 instead. As silly as it sounds, one could never be too careful.

There were a series of signs telling drivers to slow down at one point during the drive. We couldn't figure out why until the mountain road suddenly took a sharp turn to the left. Had Dad kept going at the original speed, our car would have driven straight off the cliff. It was very unsettling to realize we were just seconds from becoming a statistic.

Due to the detour, my parents and I didn't get the chance to stop at Chih-Yue's house again as we had hoped. It was actually pretty late when we got to the hotel because of the extra driving; the three of us arrived there just as the clock struck midnight!

Day 7

It was hard to believe our trip was almost over. Our flight was just before noon, so we didn't get to do much other than browse the gift shops at the airport. There were many Southwestern treats that looked rather tempting, particularly the cactus candy. I really wanted to try some, but didn't buy any because everything in the shops was very expensive. Perhaps I should be a little more generous to myself next time. :P

Conclusions

Although our last trip to the American Southwest was just 14 months ago, this one was still very exciting because we mostly visited places that we had never been to before. The best part of the trip was the Four Corners Monument; I don't think the novelty of being in four states at once will get old anytime soon.

The scenery wasn't the only thing that made this trip so special; the local Native American culture was also very fascinating. While many folks are quick to dismiss the desert as a boring place, I certainly beg to differ.

School starts tomorrow for me, so I guess I better get back to studying. On the other hand, I have a great story to share with my teachers and classmates. :-)

Currently listening to: "Turn the Tide" by Sylver

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