Tag Archives: Holiday visits

Southwestern peregrinations

5 Jan



Our plans for the 2017 holidays began with a fairly simple set of decisions. We rented our house to friends who were keen to see the Rose Parade, and then had to find an inexpensive way to be elsewhere for two weeks.  We were going to go up to my sister’s place near Yosemite for a week, while they drove their RV (or five-wheeler, or whatever the behemoth is) for a nice little holiday stay on the coast in Ventura.  Then for another week we would head up to Chico and Sacramento–places still on our list as possibilities in the “where could we move to that we would like and can still afford?” contest.

Then all Hell broke loose: the fires that have devastated so much of Southern California burned down my sister’s vacation spot, and they couldn’t find another place to go! Not wanting to impose on them while they were at home, and still thinking we should try and save a little money by finding amenable accommodation, we resigned ourselves to do what we had vowed never to do again: to drive to our kids in Denver during the winter. So on December 23, we set out on the shortest route (via Las Vegas), with the intention of stopping in our favorite mid spot of Cedar City, Utah, then crossing through the mountains to arrive in Lakewood, Colorado, on Christmas Eve evening, in time to see the near-two-year-old grandson open his presents on Christmas morning. Despite the driving, this seemed a very nice alternative, as long as the weather held.

Traffic to Las Vegas, through the desolate California desert, was, as always, insane: bumper-to-bumper cars and impossible drivers urgently trying to get to the casino tables. As soon as you hit Nevada, the traffic suddenly opens up, but until then, it’s stop and go and frustration. Max points out, correctly I think, that this is because California has no desire to make the highways easy to get to Vegas, taking all that money out of the state. We eventually made it to Cedar City and got to our hotel, having had no weather problems at all.

That evening we checked the forecasts for I-70 going through the Colorado Rockies at Vail Pass. Eeek! An unexpected blizzard had closed down the entire pass! Not even cars with chains were getting through! What to do?  Briefly, we considered turning back and prevailing upon my sister to put us up. Then we started scouring the internet maps for alternative routes that might have had reasonable weather conditions. Finally, in the realm of making lemonade out of lemons, we decided to head south, through Arizona’s Navajo Nation, past Monument Valley (where all those John Wayne/John Ford movies were filmed! Remember “The Searchers”?), onto Four Corners, and into Farmington, New Mexico, where we would stop for the night before driving into Colorado for another 8 hours before reaching Lakewood on Christmas Day evening.  Since this was a part of the country we had not yet experienced, we were actually excited to have an excuse to make this rather extended detour.

The roads were completely clear all the way to New Mexico, and we arrived in Farmington with no problems, having seen some interesting desert landscapes and even a few Native Americans on horseback.  The only distressing incident:  when we got to the hotel, we realized that we had somehow forgotten a bag in Cedar City–the one with BOTH of our computers in it!  In 40 years of travelling, we have never done anything as bone-headed as this kind of oversight. We were so distressed by this forgetfulness that we started to think we should hang up our travelling spurs. To our great relief, we called the hotel and found out that we had left the bag in our hotel room. While it took a few days to arrange because of the holidays, we were able, for a not completely impossible price, to have it delivered to Max & Dottie’s house by UPS. By this time, of course, our idea of having an inexpensive holiday had gone out the window, and I was forced to remember my father’s favorite saying: “Never worry about anything that money can fix.”

The journey from New Mexico  through Colorado involved the only hairy bit of driving, as we forgot that there were inevitably going to be mountain crossings. Fortunately, by the time we got to La Manga Pass, the sun was shining brightly and the iciest parts of the road had melted.  This being Christmas Day, we saw very few cars on the road, and everything (outside of a store on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation!) was closed. When our Colorado friends later learned of our route, they told us that we would have been in great trouble if the weather had turned, since there are no services along most of those highways.  Luck was on our side, and we made it to the family’s house before Christmas dinner!


It was so worth the effort!  Such a treat to see our beautiful, precocious little grandson, who, despite one epic toddler meltdown, was throughout a delight–devouring books, learning new words every day, and being mischievous enough to make us laugh. Poor exhausted parents are doing a fantastic job of turning him into a civilized empathetic creature, even if they aren’t sure they are.  Both Max & Dottie had the holiday virus that their child had so generously shared with them and has now passed on to us. No matter: we cooked and ate, and read stories and took walks in the freezing Colorado landscape. It was grand, with memories that will last (although I imagine Lyle is still too young to remember them when he’s older). Nothing can take the place of a two-year-old’s little kiss and a “Bye bye, Grammy!” with a wave as we departed.


In our only venture outside the Lakewood house, we did manage finally to meet our friends Don & Cyndy at one of the real “destinations” of Denver, the Clyfford Still Museum. Don is an avid aficionado of the place, and could tell us all about how this incredible collection of one man’s oeuvre came to be in Denver, with an admirable building created specifically for the collection. Still, who was notoriously cantankerous, had held on to most of his works, reluctant to sell them; they were languishing in a barn when he died. His wife, with the collusion of his nephew living in Denver, amazingly persuaded the city fathers to acquire 95% of the paintings the artist ever did, and to make this museum to house them.  Well worth a visit!


Having already planned to be in Chico on January 2, we reluctantly departed Lakewood on New Year’s Eve Day, deciding to take the northern route back to California–on Interstate 80, crossing southern Wyoming and Nevada. and into the Sierra Nevada range. Getting to I-80 involved driving through a foggy whiteout through the Poudre Valley shepherded by a 16 wheeler–fascinating if scary–but once we were on the freeway we had absolutely clear skies, if cold temperatures, for the entire route. We spent New Year’s Eve night in a lovely little apartment in North Salt Lake, then drove on to the phantasmagoric glitz of a Reno casino for the night of New Year’s Day (don’t ask why). This itinerary meant that we experienced the desolate expanses of southern Wyoming and middle Nevada, a journey that can only cause tremendous admiration for those early pioneers who crossed these wastelands in the mid-19th century, having no idea what was in store for them. That any of them made it is miraculous. (For a fascinating account of one of the first crossings, read John Bidwell, the founder of Chico, by clicking here: Gold Hunters of California. The First Emigrant Train to California )

I was elated when we finally crossed into California and saw trees again!  We stopped in the artsy little gold town of Nevada City for lunch–and were able to sit outside in the sun on January 2! This is, of course, not good news–the mountains really should have more snow by now–but we were so happy to be warm again. I couldn’t resist taking a photo of the main street, to compare with the 1856 daguerreotype by Starkweather that I included in my book about Gold Rush photographers. Many of the buildings being raised then are still there in town.

So we are now in Chico, scoping out this nice little college town, waiting to return home on Monday after a few days in Sacramento. That’s another 7 hours of driving, which seems like a breeze after traversing all of the Southwestern states in the last week.  We have indeed driven from California through Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming! Another adventure in what George has taken to calling our “life on the lam.”

Oh:  before closing, I would be remiss without including a cat: the regal and inimitable Freddy was a constant entertainment!