When we first began thinking of doing this trip we wanted the freedom of not having a set schedule. We also wanted to get all the way to Alaska. We settled on what we thought would be a good compromise: driving to Seattle without a set schedule and then flying to Alaska. It wasn’t such a good plan. We had already bought our plane tickets from Seattle to Anchorage so we had to leave home before we felt ready to in order to make that flight. Instead of taking the interstates which would have meant travelling in straight perpendicular lines, first north then west, then north again and so on; we decided to try our luck with smaller, more direct roads. Our strategy paid off and we made good time, we found the back-roads to be very well maintained and mostly devoid of trailer trucks.We drove through the plains of West Texas where the contrast between new and old technologies is plain to see.
We have driven through New Mexico in the past and found it endlessly boring but this time the landscape was amazing, it must have been those back-roads. We made it all the way to Bloomfield, New Mexico on our first day. We were happy to get an early start the following day and even made plans to meet a friend in Salt Lake City around noon. We drove through long stretches of desolate landscape without seeing anyone for miles and of course no cellular coverage.
We have gotten so used to our smartphones that we don’t even notice how dependent on them we’ve become. At one point we needed to figure out which way to go and we wished for that blinking blue dot on the screen. Fernando suggested I look at the map we’d gotten from AAA. You mean open up a PAPER map? (GASP) We had forgotten how we used to travel in the “old days”. I brought out the map, studied it and decided which way to go. We thought we were on our way until we began noticing that we weren’t driving through any of the towns we were supposed to according to the map. We finally stopped at a place called “Four Corners” and as I tried in vain to find it on the map, my son exclaimed from the back that he had read about this place in his Social Studies class and could we please take a look at it. Turns out that “Four Corners” is where the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado meet
and about 90 miles south of where we were supposed to be. There’s not much to look at here but it was fun to play around jumping from one state to the next and back again and Alejandro got to prove once and for all how very strong he is by pushing his dad all the way into the next state.
Our trip began to feel like a vacation here. Finding weird little places is what a good road trip is made of and this is what we were craving. Too bad we were on a deadline to make that flight and for most of the drive we couldn’t afford the time it would take to stop every time we wanted to.
We continued on our way and drove through a tiny corner of Colorado. It was a gorgeous corner and we must come back at some later time to explore it. The change in scenery from Colorado to Utah was astounding. While Colorado had miles of thick forest, Utah has enormous rock formations which seem to have been painted in the brightest hues of purple.
We added Moab, Utah to the list of places we need to come back to and pushed on to Salt Lake City which we reached in the late afternoon.
Our first stop was the Capitol Building which seemed a bit too perfect.
It has wonderfully bright colored windows and paintings on the ceiling depicting the history of Utah but it somehow seemed a little bit fake. The symbol of Utah is the beehive, it stands for industry and hard work, which the early settlers needed to have in big quantities to make the state what it is today.
From here we headed to the Temple which happens to be the very center of the city: all streets are numbered out not from the Capitol Building but from the Temple. We toured the Visitor’s Center where the history of the Church of Christ of the Latter Day Saints is explained in dioramas and movies, as well as their many missions around the world. They have a cool exhibit consisting of many Book of Mormon books translated into lots of different languages, even uncommon ones such as Catalan and Polynesian.
We also toured the Tabernacle and got a demonstration of the perfect acoustics of the place. The Temple is not open to the public, in fact not even all members of the church are allowed inside. Rituals of purification must be followed before a person is allowed inside the Temple but we could look at it from outside and take as many pictures as we wanted.
Throughout the several blocks where all the LDS buildings stand, members of the church are stationed waiting to answer questions and offer free tours to visitors. They are very nice and not at all pushy but the entire place has a Disney-fied feeling about it, it is all just a bit too perfect to be real. Strangely though, there is also a warmth about it and I must note that this is the first time we have been to any place of worship where there was no gift shop, no donation box, no entrance fee, nothing to buy, no one asking for money at any point. Being that we were greeted with smiles all the way through, I may not have shared their beliefs but I did feel the effect. Melissa, who just recently moved to SLC, met us afterward and took us on a quick tour of the “other” Salt Lake City; the one where not everyone belongs to the LDS church and wine is allowed to be served for dinner.
We couldn’t leave Salt Lake City without taking a look at the lake after which it is named so, early the next morning we headed out to Antelope Island.
It is a beautiful place where bison roam free and camping is allowed.
Unfortunately though, it is a salt lake and the smell of stagnant salty water was overwhelming. The lake is home to teeny tiny shrimp which serve as food for an ugly black fly which itself is sustenance for the many birds that live on the island. The shrimp is also harvested and sold as feed for prawn destined for human consumption. Note to self: take prawn off my food list, the memory of that stench… This island was the site of the Last Wild Buffalo Hunt in the USA in 1926.
Our next stop was Twin Falls, Idaho: site of the “Niagara Falls of the West”.
The Snake River is dammed up and used for irrigation during the dry summer months so it doesn’t carry as much water then, but the falls were impressive nonetheless. There is an entire recreation area with water activities centered on the falls which the locals frequent and after some downtime spent here we left for Boise where we toured the Capitol Building and found it more to our liking.
We decided to save Oregon for the way back since we felt that getting to Seattle was more urgent. As we approached our destination, we could see the snowy mountains in the distance. We arrived in Seattle midday and headed straight for (can you believe this?) Wal-Mart! We had been unable to buy winter gear before leaving home, any guesses why? With over 100 degree temps it’s only reasonable that stores don’t stock thermal underwear. We didn’t want to get to Alaska only to suffer with the cold and we figured we could buy what we needed in cold, rainy Seattle. We were wrong. Apparently, cold rainy Seattle heard we were coming and decided to welcome us with the brightest sunshine they had seen all summer just so we wouldn’t be homesick. We gave up on our shopping and decided to spend our time being tourists. We met up with Jessica, an old friend whom we hadn’t seen in ten years and she gave us a walking tour of downtown.
We began with the famous Pike Place Market where the freshest catch of the day is sold and thrown around to the delight of the tourists.
There is much more to it than the Pike Place though, the market sells everything from gourmet marmalades, flowers, all kinds of fruit, souvenirs and even street food. The prices for seafood weren’t any better than at our local Texas HEB though, another personal bias maybe?
We had dinner at the Fisherman’s restaurant on the pier where the food is not the main attraction even though they do serve a killer Clam Chowder. Apart from the great views of the sailboats and cruise ships drifting by, the restaurant is located right underneath the newly opened gigantic Ferris Wheel.
Trying to keep more of the tourist money locally, Seattle opened this attraction just a couple of weeks ago. The gondolas are enclosed in glass and have air conditioning; a luxury which may prove to have been a mistake. As we were having dinner, sporadic showers of water kept raining down on us. It didn’t bother us though: since it was such a nice sunny day, the umbrellas were open and we weren’t getting wet. We asked the waitress and she didn’t know where the water was coming from, she hadn’t seen it happen before. After much looking around and with help from other confounded diners, we finally figured out that it was the condensation from the AC on the gondolas which was pouring down on us. We wanted to take a ride on the Ferris Wheel but being such a novelty, the line to get on was too long for us to wait and we spent our time walking around the downtown area instead.
Seattle has been undergoing a series of revitalization efforts and we found it to be a quirky place with lots of character although as Jessica kept reminding us, sunny warm was not typical weather and I can’t imagine what it must be like under different conditions. The downtown was shock full of people in short sleeves walking around, buying flowers and holding hands. So many people that Alejandro asked if there was a festival going on. There wasn’t, it was simply Seattleites making the most of a beautiful day.
The next morning we left our car behind and took the light rail. It is a small transportation system for the size of Seattle but work is underway to expand service; for our purposes it served us perfectly. We bought an all day pass for the price of two one-way tickets and got off and on as needed. We began our day with a tour of the underground Seattle.
Seattle was first settled when the US government began worrying that Canadians would invade the far away territory and sent people out here with the promise of free land. To believe the tour guide, it was nothing but a bog with the ugliest kind of weather one could hope for, were Canadians truly interested in it? It became a logging town and attracted rugged men to work the mills. Problem was that these men were not urban planners and settled on the banks of the sea without regard to the tides, so twice a day Seattle would be flooded. Add to that the rustic drainage system fabricated entirely of wood which tended to rot not soon after the pipes were laid down and you can imagine the size, and stink, of the problem they were dealing with. At some point the streets became so dangerous that a 10 year-old boy drowned in one of them with bystanders not being able to pull him out for two hours!
After a fire destroyed downtown Seattle in 1889, the city came up with a plan to raise the entire town anywhere from 7 feet in some places to 35 feet in some others by carving the mountains and redistributing the dirt. Not everyone approved of the idea though since it would take about 5 years to realize and shop owners couldn’t wait around that long to reopen their stores. Discord ensued when shop owners and city planners couldn’t agree and each decided to pursue their interests separately. Shop owners rebuilt their stores, while city managers began pouring dirt into the streets. This gave way to a waffle appearance where the city blocks were left at a lower level while streets crisscrossed from the heights. Resourceful shop owners came up with the idea of placing wooden ladders at block corners so patrons could walk up a flight of stairs holding their belongings, cross the street and then descend on the other side to visit a different store. When my kids were younger I used to complain whenever a sidewalk didn’t have a ramp for the stroller, I can’t imagine what it must have been like to hold your shopping in one hand and your child in the other while trying to climb a 30 foot ladder dressed in those big skirts which were the style of the time. Add to it that you probably had a bunch of men waiting underneath to look up as you were climbing and pretty soon wives began complaining to their husbands to find a solution to this. Shop owners built second stories to their stores connected by passageways to the streets and placed indoor staircases. All seemed good for a bit until people walking on sidewalks outside the stores would get hit by falling objects off the street. If you can remember that horse carriages were used then, you know what the problem was. That forced the shop-owners to agree with the city planners and allow for the sidewalks to be filled up with dirt and new sidewalks built at street level which left the ground floors of the stores underground and useless since vermin quickly moved in. The tour took us thru several of these stores where you can get a true feeling of what it must have been like looking up and watching carriages pass by on the streets above.
The boys then insisted we visit the aquarium which is small but very well kept and not at all crowded.
Afterward we met up with Jessica again for coffee and pastries at (where else?) Starbucks. Starbucks had its start here in Seattle and it is a running joke that there’s one on every block. I think one every half block might just be more accurate, with all that rain we’ve been told they get, it’s no wonder they need hot coffee to entice them out the door. After a good long chat we retired early to prepare for our early flight to Anchorage the next morning.