Driving the Desert: Our Southwest Road Trip

February 5, 2015 — Before January’s Southwest road trip, I had a vague, blurry image of the region as cacti and canyons, tumbleweed and teepees. Now, after a nine-day, ~1,800-mile road trip through Nevada, a tiny piece of California, Arizona, and a sliver of Utah, it’s a relatively more defined blur of cacti and canyons, tumbleweed and teepees.

Our route started in Vegas and ended in Vegas, a vast lasso loop that encircled the greatest natural wonder of North America and hit all the desert tropes I’ve always wanted to see: western ghost towns, Native American petroglyphs and cliff dwellings, UFO shenanigans, uh…clown-themed motels. I have about two dozen OTIS adventures to write as a result of this trip, but here it is in overview.

Day 1: Las Vegas, Kind Of

We landed in Las Vegas at about 2 pm. Our first stop? In-and-Out Burger. Second? Super Wal-Mart. That might not seem like an auspicious start to a road trip, especially in a city like Las Vegas, but our location was incidental. Just an easy to city to fly in and out of. And we needed to prep. I was about to take my family—wife, five-year-old, infant—into the unforgiving desert in a rented mini-van of questionable lineage. That meant we needed to stock up on water, baby food, turkey jerky, and bargain-bin DVDs.

Day 2: Yeah, Though I Walk Through Death Valley

Death Valley was amazing and unreal. Winter is an ideal time to see the desolation of the desert in general, but especially a place like Death Valley since summer temperatures average as high as 116 degrees. Our weather was more like Autumn. We spent the entire day hanging out below sea level and above, seeing all manner of baked wonders. We stayed at a hotel inside the park and ventured out late into the painfully silent night to get the clearest view of the universe I’ve ever seen. That OTIS entry will be a two-parter. Also saw my first roadrunner in the wild. Meep. Meep.

Day 3: Ghosts and Clowns and Aliens

This was my favorite day of the trip, oddity-wise. We woke early enough to catch the sunrise on the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and then left Death Valley for a day-long, seven-hour loop north of Vegas that took us through the ghost town of Rhyolite, an art installation of cars buried end-on in the dirt, a pioneer cemetery, a clown-themed motel, and the Extraterrestrial Highway—a boyhood dream that had us standing on the edge of Area 51 in front of “Danger: No Trespassing” signs while security trucks parked atop hills surveilled us. Props to the minivan for taking 25 miles worth of dirt roads on this day without blowing a tire. Those vehicles need to make a comeback.

Day 4: Mars and Dinosaurs and Ghosts

This day started in Nevada, but represented our only foray into Utah. We began in Valley of Fire State Park, a fantastic place near Las Vegas that looks like a movie set for the planet Mars, all red and rocky with pink sand and ancient petroglyphs…which is one of things it was used for in the many movies that have filmed there. Next, we crossed the Mormon border, stopping to see dinosaur footprints at the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site and then hitting Grafton, another ghost town, before accidentally crossing through a vertiginous bit of Mt. Zion National Park en route to our hotel in Arizona.

Day 5: Horseshoes and Antelopes

We started out at Horseshoe Bend, that famous twist in the Colorado River that you can view from 4,000 feet up at the edge of a cliff without a guardrail. From there we visited another famous geological feature, Antelope Canyon, where we paid a lot of money for a Navajo guide to drive us three miles across packed sand to this cave-like slit canyon with its gracefully water-carved orange walls. He told us about skinwalkers and portals to other worlds and how to hold the camera to make the rocks look like George Washington. We ended the day at the southern rim of the Grand Canyon, catching it right at sunset for our first ever view of the gigantic crevice.

Day 6: Canyons and Craters and Soft Rock

The Grand Canyon was fan-tas-tic. As expected. And visiting it in January meant that the crowds were fractional, and we had quite a few scenic views all to ourselves. Even better, we inadvertently timed it to witness a rare natural phenomenon: a cloud inversion, where much of the canyon was filled with a trapped cloud making it look like some alien ocean beneath us. From there, it was on to Meteor Crater, a surprisingly well-preserved and extraordinarily massive meteor impact crater that’s about 50,000 years old. Heady. That night, before the sound of our own wheels drove us crazy, we bunked up in Winslow, Arizona, home to a statue and mural depicting a single verse in that one Eagles song from the 1970s that mentions the town.

Day 7: Petrified with Awe

We spent most of this day in the Petrified Forest, the furthest point east on our loop, wandering the desolation of a landscape dotted with the fallen trunks of ancient stone trees out in the Painted Desert. Then we headed back west, where we spent the night in Flagstaff, although not before checking out the Walnut Canyon cliff dwellings. There, we descended 240 vertiginous steps to walk through ancient stone houses not much more than clefts in the rock and then ascended the same 240 steps. As was true of so many of the sites we visited, guardrails were a rarity.

Day 8: Animals and Altered Plans

It actually rained all day, but the weather was perfectly timed for our itinerary. We first checked out the mass grave of some of the more than 100 victims of a mid-air collision over the Grand Canyon in 1956. Then we headed to Bearizona, a drive-through safari where we were within inches of uncaged wolves and bears, but were only molested by a white bison who raced to cut off our van and a Rocky Mountain Elk that tried to pull off our antenna.

From there we took Route 66 to randomly see some of the strange sites that still survive there. We were supposed to end this day near the Grand Canyon Skywalk, that glass horseshoe bridge suspended over the canyon, so that we could try it out the next day, but we read such universally terrible reviews the night before that we ditched that plan and replaced it with a day in Vegas. We let our five-year-old choose the hotel, which naturally landed us at the castle-themed Excalibur, where we officially finished the night by taking the tram to Mandalay Bay to see an aquarium with a shark tank and a Komodo dragon. Unofficially, later that night, I tried my first slot machine. And my second. And my third.

Day 9: National Lampoon’s Vegas Vacation

We did Vegas the family way, which was only awkward during the walk from the check-in desk to the elevators as we had to slide through the ranks of bleary-eyed slot machine riders. Once we were outside, the place was an amusement park, the highlights of which was the Fall of Atlantis robot show at the Forums Shops at Ceasers and Siegfried and Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat at the Mirage, where I have never seen such beautifully well-groomed and obviously show-biz lions and tigers.

We had plans to see more, but around 3 pm we got an emergency email from Virgin Atlantic cancelling our flight the next day due to the latest impending New England snowstorm. So instead of waiting the day or two until they resumed flights, we jumped directly on an overnight, making it home by Day 10, which turned out for the best anyway for all kinds of reasons.

Although trading desert rock for drifts of snow as big as our rental van was a bit of a system shock.

As always, a hugely enjoyable part of the trip was sharing it in-situ with all of you on Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr, or here on OTIS. Thanks to everyone who followed along (we reserved the back seat of the minivan for you), and I promise I will get to actual posts on these oddities at some point before I die.