Traveling in the Time of COVID

October 3, 2020

Teresa and I have decided to take the leap, or risk in this case, and travel. After moon-suiting up this morning and hailing an Uber to the airport, we have finally arrived at our destination in northern Arizona … Sedona. Now, at 5 in the evening, at an elevation of 5,000 feet, it’s a chilly 105 degrees after the earlier refreshing 109 degrees in Phoenix. Nice and mild for October. Fall is in the air. The leaves are changing color from soft greens to nuclear fireballs.

Earlier, our journey through the Atlanta Airport presented several surprises. Almost everyone wore a mask. The amount of traffic is about a quarter of normal so it’s not as stressful at the security checkpoints. Delta has rediscovered common sense and now boards from the rear of the plane forward. Every middle seat (in steerage) is empty. They don’t serve coffee for breakfast (which is a bag of Cheetos) but they do serve beer and wine. Passengers are still allowed to travel with emotional support animals which I discovered can be a gigantic Rottweiler who decides to place his head in your lap because you have an aisle seat and because the surprise, as you are looking out the window, will make you scream out loud. Gosh how we’ve missed the thrills of travel. 

October 4, 2020

In the early morning cool air (it actually dropped 50 degrees after sunset), Teresa and I donned our containment suits and headed away from Sedona. Fearing that tourists would overwhelm the area, we set our sights on Arcosanti, an architectural experiment from the late 60s and bell foundry an hour and a half drive south. As a college student studying architecture in the early 70s, Arcosanti was frequently a topic of conversation. Its mission was the development of a new urban environment that blended architecture with ecology, hence “arcology”. Today it still struggles, mostly unnoticed, in creating its vision. Inhabited by less than a 100 architects it survives mostly on tours and bell sales.

After an enjoyable hour tour we headed onward to our next destination, a ghost town Teresa found on the maps called Jerome. Upon arriving we could see Jerome wasn’t yet a ghost town but was still actively turning into one. Built on the steep side of a mountain, the town was swamped with tourists and bikers, ass to elbow and most without masks. A Sturgis of idiocy but I repeat myself. We took off as quickly as we could (partly because we couldn’t find a place to park) and made our way back to Sedona, the streets likewise filled with tourists and the traffic bumper to bumper.

We made a quick stop at a Safeway for supplies which was crowded but at least most shoppers were masked. Making it back to our condo we unloaded our groceries (ok, technically liquor), lathered on hand sanitizer from head to toe and made plans for the next day’s dangerous sojourn.

October 5, 2020

Enjoyed a quieter and less tourist crushed day hiking in and around Sedona. Mask on. Mask off. The city of Sedona is more car friendly than pedestrian friendly. I was surprised to find out that the city itself is barely more than 100 years old thus explaining its lack of a city center and its inherent feel of being a tourist trap built on the shoulders of a busy highway. A tourist trap in an incredibly beautiful landscape but a tourist trap nonetheless in heart and soul. I mean, how many stores do you really need selling “aura photos”? But, hop in your car and a few minutes later you are in unexplored high desert wilderness. Barely a sign of civilization in sight.

We found a trail by a small flowing river and on approaching its banks, the air temperature dropped noticeably. The area is a hikers dreamscape with miles and miles of well marked trails winding through the mesas and buttes. And when you are done, head back to town to get your aura photographed. What’s not to like?

October 6, 2020

Today we got our kicks on route 66. Heading north from Sedona we set out on a road at the bottom of a canyon that followed a small creek. The deep canyon was still shaded in the early morning light but after a few miles a series of hairpin turns brought us to the top of the surrounding tablelands in the full sunlight. We found a vista point and as luck would have it, a jewelry festival was in full swing. After a brief but requisite visit and purchase of silver and turquoise bangles we continued on towards our first destination, Meteor Crater, an apparition seemingly appropriate for the year 2020.

As we scorched eastward along route 66 in our amazingly underpowered Nissan SUV rental, Teresa spotted a destination on the map that we would have to stop at on our return trip. The charmingly named “Apache Death Cave”. I assured her that we would stop there as I was certain the gift shop alone would make the stop well worthwhile. But first, a giant hole in the ground was our goal. Driving thru the now flat Marscape we arrived and paid our $20 (each) entrance fee, our hearts beating excitedly at the prospect of staring into an abyss. We climbed up the stairs (actually we took an elevator … DING second floor) to the rim of the crater and there it was. A hole in the ground!

Ten seconds later we were back in the SUV gliding eastward to Winslow, Arizona. And a flatbed Ford. And fortunately lunch. We found a spot across the street from our pilgrimage’s destination, the iconic Eagles “Standin’ on the Corner” corner, with outdoor seating and masked clientele. I ordered the Take It Greasy burger.

Following lunch and a few quick photos, we were on our way back, first stop – Apache Death Cave. In keeping with the spirit of 2020, Apache Death Cave was closed due to COVID-19. I mean, really? With broken hearts and in stunned silence we returned to our casita in Sedona. Pulling into the parking lot, we both looked at each other and suddenly realized, we forgot Winona!

October 7, 2020

Day 5 of Covidcation 2020 and we headed north to the Grand Canyon, or as they say in Spanish, El Grand Canyon. A two and a half hour drive north of Sedona that takes you thru Flagstaff and into forests of Ponderosa Pines, the theme song from Bonanza playing softly in the background. Not much traffic on the roads as we left early so that we could beat the crowds that would arrive by train at noon.

As we approached the entrance gates we could see a sign that said the daily car fee was $35. A young masked park ranger stood curbside collecting fees and handing out maps. We pulled up to the ranger and I lowered (does any “roll down” anymore) the window, masked, with credit card in hand. The ranger began to explain our options and then stopped and asked, “Are either of you senior citizens?” I blinked at her thru my dark sunglasses and said, “Excuse me you young whippersnapper but these old ears can’t hear you through that mask. Can you speak louder?” She waived us through, no charge. I took off and leaned over to Teresa and said, “I told you I would come in handy one of these days.”

October 8, 2020

On our last day in Sedona we decided to enjoy the local activities and sights. In the morning we headed out to hike in a state park nearby, Red Rock State Park. On the way, we stopped to view the architecturally notable Chapel of the Holy Cross. Built into the rocks of a mesa overlooking Sedona, it’s a great spot for panoramic views of the area. And not bad for 64. It was built in 1956. Doing better than me.

We continued on to the state park where I tried my “Grand Canyon Senior Citizen” routine but to no avail. The park ranger, an old masked codger, saw through the ruse. $14 later we parked and headed out on a hike. The “Rattlesnake Trail”. Three and a half miles long and climbing up and down a 600′ tall desert mesa. We both wondered about the significance of the trail’s name. We crossed a cool creek and saw two dark deer. We passed fields of cactus, some flowering, some dead. With a few detours we made it back down having failed in our hunt for rattlers.

It was now midday and time for lunch. We found a cafe offering all you can eat tacos. A couple of hours later we rolled back to the Nissan. Heading back to the casita for a siesta, I spotted a sign for free “chokra screenings”. Wow, I thought, now there’s something valuable. None of that “aura photography” BS. I whipsawwed the Nissan across two lanes, cutting off a swarm of Harley Davidson bikers, into the local “Swamis R’ Us” store and got my screening. Looking at the results now makes me think I shouldn’t have eaten the whole thing.

October 9, 2020

Left Sedona in the morning on Friday and headed north to the land of the Utes or is it Utahns? Heading out of Flagstaff, we entered Navajo Nation. The two lane blacktop, freshly oiled, followed mile after mile along the base of a red mesa, part of the landscape that eventually descends into the Grand Canyon. Along the way we turned on the radio and found a Navajo language talk show. Sounding so much like Japanese, the only words we could decipher were “COVID” and “virus” used frequently and in close succession.

After a couple of hours we saw our first sign of civilization where the highway crossed the Colorado River just south of Glen Canyon, a relief as we needed gas plus. After filling up, I headed to the restroom to take care of the “plus”. Just my luck, the only restroom for hundreds of miles and it was “closed for cleaning”. Fortunately there was a laundromat next door where a solution was found.

October 10, 2020

We arrived late Friday to my sister’s desert house in southern Utah. The house, a modern adobe style design camouflaged to blend in, looks out over a canyon and red rock mountains in the near distance. A beautiful setting with quail and roadrunners scurrying around. The coyote curiously missing.

Saturday morning, Joanne and Gary drove Teresa and me to nearby Zion National Park for a day of hiking and exploring. Another all too common scene of incredible beauty for this part of the world. The park was unusually crowded as we drove through valleys that led to a mile long tunnel carved into the mountain. The tunnel’s side wall had portals carved out giving glimpses of the views outside. A Mormon cricket (great name for a sports team in Salt Lake, I thought) greeted us as we looked over flowering cactus. But, truth be known, the Mormon cricket is in fact not a cricket but a katydid. Another deception.

October 11, 2020

As if Las Vegas wasn’t strange enough, welcome to Pandemic Vegas. A barren and gaudy landscape filled with wandering zombies. Then again, maybe it’s really not that different after all. We left St. George this morning and headed down I-15. The freeway quickly descended back and forth through steep rocky canyons emptying into an apocalyptic flat plain filled with large electric pylons. Appearing like a cheesy colorless 50s science fiction film, the only thing missing, a 60 foot tarantula attacking RVs and cop cars. Once safely parked and checked in at our destination, we set out to explore the strange new world.

Everyone everywhere wore masks or what appeared to be plexiglass welding hoods. The casinos seemed crowded one moment and empty around the next turn. Blackjack tables were filled but plexiglass dividers separated all participants. Slot machines were empty yet loudly beckoned for your attention. Sitting down for lunch, with tables now spaced twice as far as usual, the waiter explained we would have to download an app to place our order since paper menus were verboten. Placemats were provided for our face masks when removed but were only to be used when eating or drinking. Wandering around the property, sections were closed, pathways barricaded.

Out on Las Vegas Boulevard, the sidewalks were lightly populated and traffic, while noisy, not what would be normally expected. Piped in music underscored the empty oddness. Stores were closed everywhere. A strange new mutation for Las Vegas as it continues to struggle to survive and suck all your money, and soul, out of your pockets. What’s caught in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas.

A real wow of a dinner fountain-side at the Bellagio. The fountain water show was something I’ve heard of but have never seen. Or heard! To shoot the geysers 200 feet or more in the air takes explosive charges of some kind. Likely compressed air charges. It was very surprising and loud. And the engineering horsepower and computer programming for the choreography is incredible. For the jaded traveler it is a real treat. And considering that I worked for three years as an engineer at a decorative fountain company while going to Georgia Tech made it even more impressive as I understood first hand some of the design challenges that were overcome. Also, too, the drive-by shooting across the street and subsequent police and helicopter chase just added to an evening of special effects. Viva Pandemic Vegas!

October 12, 2020

Our final day of SouthWestern CovidCation 2020 was spent seeing the sights of Sin City. We started at the top and worked our way down with a visit to the Stratosphere Tower which is normally packed with hundreds of sightseers. At a thousand feet tall, with exterior stomach churning rides (now closed), we were two of a dozen people we saw. The place was empty and many stores and attractions boarded up. The views still worked so we enjoyed that.

A quick Uber ride back to the Strip was provided by a young Iraqi driver who pointed out all the big name properties now closed like The Palms Casino, home of the Penn and Teller show. Now on foot we worked our way back through the shops and casinos stopping along the way to hail a now masked Caesar. “Et tu?”, I wondered aloud muffled by my own mask.