We arose before day break and quietly broke camp by 5:50am without waking our youthful, late arriving neighbors.
The drive that morning took us back north to Flagstaff and then east on route 40. The landscape makes an abrupt shift after Flagstaff, from a hilly/mountainous and rocky desert to flat planes similar to the mid west. (I was driving and unfortunately didn take pictures.)
The original plan had us stopping at Meteor Crater, but we began second guessing ourselves that morning and decided to skip it in order to have more time at other spots. The tickets were $15/person and felt we seen enough holes in the ground. That is, until we were hit by their advertising campaign. First, there is their radio station which airs a loop listing all the amazing attractions, from an actual piece of the meteor to having a Subway sandwich shop. Then there are the billboards, listing facts about the meteor and the crater. Lastly, there just the uniqueness of the place as the best preserved meteorite impact site. One of the guiding philosophies/rules of the trip was that we not have regrets of we should/could have done that, but didn The closer we got to passing the crater, the more I felt that I would be felling that, and so I caved and made the turn onto Meteor Crater Road.
The drive to the crater is on a nice several mile road, empty at that early hour of the morning, through flat grassland, leading towards what looks like an average hill. As we eventually learn, that grassland was eviscerated 50,000 years ago and that hill is the rim of the giant crater.
We arrived just as the ticket office was opening. I bought the tickets (again, we benefited from a senior discount) and received an informational tri fold. I read this while Dad made some business phone calls. I must say, this was a lengthy, but very well written tri fold, that explained: a) the science about the meteor, the impact, the resulting geology, and insights about the universe gained from it b) told the story of its discovery, mining attempts, controversy over what formed it, its use by NASA, and how/why it was turned into an attraction, and c) raised excitement about what we be able to see from the public vantage point and the Visitors Center. As rare as the meteor is, it also rare to find such a detailed yet readable pamphlet to a natural attraction. I think my Dad still has it in his trip document folder if you interested.
When we entered the visitor center, we were informed that a short movie was going to be starting in a few minutes, so we headed towards the theater instead of the exit to the crater. The film was neat, but I had already learned most of its information from the pamphlet came in handy when answering the pre film quiz questions. The film did add better insights about how the crater helped improve scientific understanding of collisions of celestial bodies and the role they play in the universe.
Finally, we were outdoors and standing atop the crater. At first, it rather unimpressive: just a big hole in the ground. Then the reality and scale sinks in: three football fields with over 2 million spectators in the stands around the circumference could be held there, the spec at the base is the size of person, a boulder along the rim (pictured below) is the size of a house, and last but not least: this whole thing wasn caused by erosion, an earthquake, a volcano, or some terrestrial phenomenon like other sites we seen, but from a rock, only 150 wide, from deep in the universe slamming into the ground just 50,000 years ago. And just think, now it next to a Subway there something either crass or poetic about this intersection of human civilization and the universe.
The Petrified Forest is one of the great American landscapes. Now, many of the places we gone to were priceless and couldn be stolen by anyone other than Carmen Sandeigo. At the Petrified Forest however, the thousands of pieces of tie die colored petrified wood that form the landscape are also priceless, but also easily stolen by anyone. Indeed, after nearly every step one comes across a piece of petrified wood that would look great on one mantle, in one living room, or many other places around the house. Apparently several tons are stolen each year (not sure how they really measure this), so there are checkpoints upon entering and exiting the park where drivers are questioned and can be potentially searched.
The Petrified Forest was one of the highlights of the trip. I had heard about this place and had seen petrified wood before, but experiencing the geology and landscape in person was spectacular. This is one of those places where one could spend the entire day taking pictures and still feel there was a lot that was missed. Definitely add this to your list of places to visit.
We then moved on from a colored forest to the nearby colored desert. The scenic drive through the Painted Desert takes one along landscapes of incredible shades of pink. It was very pleasant and unique, but its very monotonous and the hour was getting late, so we hurried through the drive. Next stop: Gallup, NM.
The drive to Gallup was rather uneventful, with a flat landscape interspersed by impressive mesas and other rock formations.
We arrived at the campground around 6 and settled in. The campground is part of a state park and situated amongst red rock cliffs. On the plus side, there showers, nice scenery, and an inexpensive, informal payment process. On the down side, the bathroom requires a key (which is easy to forget when hurrying to the bathroom in the morning), a lot of the scenery is blocked by trees unless you go into the park itself, and we had some anxiety about if, when, and how we be paying for the site. Either way, we were settled in and it was time for dinner.
We were low on food and had been going through the southwest for awhile now, yet hadn had any mexican / tex mex, so we opted to find such a restaurant and then stop at a supermarket.
We didn have a restaurant in mind, so we relied upon the GPS. The GPS listed dozens in the area of Gallup, so we decided to just drive downtown and see what we saw along the way. Unfortunately, nothing stood out, so I choose one from the list and followed the GPS to a residential part of the city. Now, for better or worse, not being from the area, it hard to tell what is a bad part of town; however, the place we stopped did not seem particularly inviting, and not of the type to have much of a vegetarian option, so I decided to call. As suspected, it was not where we be eating that night. Hungry and a bit frustrated at not being able to find what I thought would be simple enough, we parked and I called the list of options in the area according to the GPS. Of the first 5, only one, El Metate, had the right answer and attitude. When asked if they had vegetarian items and/or fish tacos, they said yes and that they could make whatever we like. This seemed like a place to patronize so we reset the GPS and were on our way.
Again, we arrived to a residential part of town where the restaurant had parking in the back. We were again a bit skeptical of the area, so we put our main valuables in my backpack and brought it in with us. We received a friendly greeting from the waiter and a recognition that I was the one who had called earlier (fish tacos were going to be the special of the night he told me). The restaurant is rather simple and the bathroom could be better maintained, but the food is good and has a fresh, homemade feel to it. The thing though that honestly stood out to me were the customers. This is a very hispanic restaurant in a very hispanic part of town, yet everyone eating there that evening was a) white non hispanic b) tourists and c) middle class and/or yuppies. Something was up. After googling the restaurant, it turns out that this place has many 5 star reviews and positive comments on Yelp, all from tourists who either stumbled upon it or went there because of the recommendations on that site. If people needed more evidence about the power of good online reviews, I think this should settle it.
After dinner, we stopped at the supermarket but didn get much beyond the basics of some fruit, bread, tuna fish, and ice. I had apparently stopped at the discount supermarket and while probably great for others, it lacked the items and diversity expected from a mainstream grocery store. It was a bit frustrating, but we were resupplied and had waited out the rain that had come in that evening.
On the way back to the campsite, I recalled seeing signs for some free WiFi, so I stopped to try and access it quickly from the car, but to no avail. However, that stop left Dad to re examine and identify an issue with our route for reaching Canon City, CO tomorrow. The predicament was that it was at least an 8 hour drive on main highways according to the GSP if we went east through NM then north, but a friend familiar with the area suggested a more scenic drive would be going north first, into CO, then east, but this would be on lower speed highways with sections going through towns that would add several hours to the already long trip. After much back and forth, and examination of paper maps and GPS calculations, we decided to go with the safer route on the major highways.