Tom Dec

Welcome.

I’m going to miss this place. #JE

I’m going to miss this place. #JE

Photo taken at an overlook at Zion National Park in Utah. This was my favorite national park and is the single best view I saw. It topped everything I saw on the trip or before it. Simply stunning. 

Photo taken at an overlook at Zion National Park in Utah. This was my favorite national park and is the single best view I saw. It topped everything I saw on the trip or before it. Simply stunning. 

Stop 11: The Grand Canyon

We took the day on Tuesday to visit the Grand Canyon. After taking the drive up, we entered the park and immediately began hiking down the canyon. The Parks Service is really great at scaring visitors into bringing a significant amount of water and food along with you down the path. As you can imagine the Grand Canyon is, well, Grand. 

The weather for canyon hiking couldn’t have been better. It was party cloudy and in the mid-60s while we were in the canyon. It was warmer in the sun, but it was the equivalent of a nice New England late Spring/early summer day. We split into two groups of three in order to hike down. As you can imagine, the canyon was stunning. I’ll of course post the photos after the trip, but even the photos cannot adequately capture the sheer size and magnitude of the canyon. The experience of being there is surreal. When you look down and can barely see the hikers below you, it really puts things in perspective. And to think that this was only one of the many trails in the park. 

After hiking three miles down the canyon, the group met up a rest house on the trail, snapped a few pictures, and then began the trek back up. NOTE: hiking up the canyon is significantly harder than hiking down. It takes about 2-3 times longer to get back up. The park had reminders posted that read “Hiking down is OPTIONAL. Hiking up is not.” in order to remind us. 

After returning to the rim (the top), we headed out for dinner and the drive north towards Utah. The giant burrito I devoured for dinner was well-deserved after the six-mile canyon hike. 

Stop 10: Flagstaff, AZ

We spent the day (Monday) heading to Flagstaff, Arizona, where we would rest before our launch to the Grand Canyon. The ride from Santa Fe to Flagstaff was a stunning drive through the southwest. We stopped by the Petrified Forest, the Continental Divide, and Walnut Canyon National Monument

We walked around downtown Flagstaff for a bit and paid a short visit to the  Lowell Observatory (though it was still light out and we were pressed for time so we didn’t look through the telescopes) before making our way to Zak’s family friends for dinner and to stay for the night. 

Our hosts were wonderful. They had two bulldogs named Henry and Lucy, which made the atmosphere more festive. The home-cooked meal, warm shower, and comfortable bed was a nice change from the norm of Motel 6 life. I was even able to do a load of laundry! 

Stop 9: Santa Fe, NM

After the great Sand Dunes we drove down to Santa Fe, NM where we set up camp at a Motel 6 near the downtown area. We got to sleep early in order to allow for an early start the next day. 

My experience in Santa Fe was limited, mostly because I had to take a much-needed break from the trip in order to work on various projects, including my academic work. I set up camp in a Starbucks nearby for the morning and in the late afternoon visited the Santa Fe Public Library. 

I did have the opportunity to walk around the downtown area, the State Capitol, and to have an authentic “New Mexican” lunch at a nearby breakfast/lunch venue. It was delicious. I had eggs over two types of chili - red and green. It was deemed “Christmas chili.” The red was hot and the green sweet. The sides were warm tortillas and an assortment of other breakfast bakery items. Very good. 

For dinner and for St. Patrick’s Day celebration the group visited a local brewhouse, where I got to sample a number of different beers and some wonderful pizza as well. Roasted duck is a great pizza topping if you’re ever looking for one. Unsurprisingly, St. Patrick’s Day is not a major holiday in Santa Fe, New Mexico. From there we went back to the motel. 

Stop 8: Great Sand Dunes National Park

Yesterday we departed Colorado Springs and made our way south to the Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve. I had the pleasure of driving the 3-hr route through southern [and rural] Colorado. We cut through part of the rockies, where the landscape quickly transitioned from the plains to the mountains. It looked a lot like Vermont, actually. The weather was in the 50s and 60s. Our peak elevation was about 9k feet (New Haven is 57ft above sea level).

The national park is in the middle of nowhere. After coming down off the mountains, we drove for miles with desolate land on our left and right and cloudy weather in the distance. Eventually, we found our way to the park.

As the Forest Service Ranger explained to us when we entered the park (which was only $15 for the entire car), the dunes are the “largest beach at this elevation.” I had no clue that sand dunes like this could exist in Colorado- it is certainly not the first thing I think of when I think of Colorado. Denver, the rockies, skiing, and snow all come to mind. Not sand dunes. But the dunes are the product of an extremely interesting phenomenon. You could check out how the dunes were made here

The dunes towered over us as we drove up to the parking lot nearby. We hiked from the base up to the highest point, which was located at 8650ft above sea level. The climb was taxing - I’m not used to climbing sand dunes of this magnitude! Like you could imagine, parts of the dunes were compact and easier to walk on. Some parts - especially on the sides of the dunes - were loose and were nearly impossible to climb. Once we made our way to the top, though, the view was spectacular. The rockies stared at us from behind and the sides and the flat, barren plains extended for miles into the distance. It was extremely windy on the top, though.

After catching our breath on the top, we began to make our way down. Coming down the dunes is much more fun than hiking up. Running down the sides of steep dunes is extremely fun. The sand absorbs your impact, so it’s a bit like bouncing down the side of the mountain. We also tried playing a bit of frisbee in the valley of the dunes, but that clearly wasn’t my strong suit.

From there we headed south to Santa Fe, NM, where we stayed the night at a Motel 6. 

Photos taken at the Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado.

Stop 7: Colorado Springs

This morning we departed Denver and headed south to Colorado Springs. Surprisingly, Colorado Springs is one of the most populated cities we’re visiting on the trip, coming in at 416k people. Denver has 619k people. For a comparison, Pittsburgh only has 307k people.

Our first stop of the day was at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where one of Zak’s high school classmates currently goes to school. After grabbing lunch nearby, we made our way over. We got a private tour of the school, including the dorms, cafeteria, and were able to get a sense of what the average cadet experienced while going to school there. It was interesting. While some aspects are certainly similar to college life more broadly (class, dorm, etc.), the Academy schedule is more rigid and disciplined. Random room inspections for cleanliness, a limit on when one could leave campus, and a schedule that includes 18 credits per semester (6 courses) are the norm. Seniors have more privileges than freshmen, but life at the Academy appears to be more insular than the average campus. While at the Academy, we also checked out the Cadet Chapel, which is open to the public. 

After departing the Academy, we made our way south to the Garden of the Gods, where we spent the afternoon hiking/driving through the park. The weather was 70 degrees and partly sunny, so it was the perfect afternoon for an outdoor adventure. The views were absolutely stunning and the trails were assessable. I was impressed with the wide variety of people who also visited - it wasn’t limited to one demographic. You can see one photo below, but I’ll leave the rest for the post-trip album!

After hiking, we ate dinner at an American/Italian restaurant in downtown Colorado Springs. The taco salad I had was a great end to the day and the   hot sauce was a great treatment for my congestion. 

We’re in the Motel 6 now and we’re heading south to the Great Sand Dunes National Park in the morning for some more outdoor adventure. I don’t normally associate sand dunes with Colorado, but I’m looking forward to the new backdrop. 

Moving the rockies at the Garden of the Gods earlier today. 

Moving the rockies at the Garden of the Gods earlier today. 

Stop 6: Kansas and Denver, CO

Yesterday we travelled from Kansas City, MO to Denver, CO in what was a marathon day of driving. For the record: Kansas is essentially the same from border to border. The photo taken below is representative of what we saw for the 7ish hour drive across the state. The weather was gorgeous and the speed limit in Kansas was 75 mph, which made for a nice ride.

In the morning we paid a visit to the Kansas State Capitol, where we toured the inside and saw the famous “John Brown” mural. You can read about its significance here. Zak and I also ran into the Kansas Speaker of the House and enjoyed a mini-tour of his office. Zak and he bonded over Texas (we got the sense that he was jealous of The Lone Star State’s vast resources and stature). We got a walk around the House chamber (the Kansas legislature was in session) before heading out.

We had a near-miss with parking enforcement in Topeka as well. Because of our rendezvous in the House chamber, Zak and I made us late to the car. The parking enforcement let us off with a warning (they would never do that in New Haven!) and the warning ticket was strategically employed as an advertisement of the Topeka visitor’s center, where we could go to learn more about the city [and how to park properly in it].

We stopped for lunch in a small town off the highway. My one observation here is that people were confused when Zak and I ordered egg whites on our Subway sandwiches. The person in front of us thought it was a new type of cheese. 

We finally arrived in Denver around dinnertime. I had been to Denver before, for the 2008 Democratic National Convention, and it was neat to be back. We grabbed dinner, walked around the downtown area, and then headed back to the motel where we got a solid night’s sleep. Cam and I were both feeling less-than-stellar, so the rest was much-appreciated.