Feb 29, 2008

Wendover Waffles, Bonneville Speed Flats

Merlin WafflesWaffles or kibble for breakfast…
There's a delightful new trend in motel breakfasts. Fresh pour-your-own-waffle makers are replacing the shrink wrapped danishes with expiration dates in the next decade. Merlin offered to clean my plate before I had a bite. We’d been sharing amaranth biscuits baked by wondrous cook husby, Marty. Merlin embraced the share all food road trip rules. Biscuits for both.

Apparently we awoke in Mountain Time. West Wendover, Nevada hopped into Utah’s time zone in 1999. The daylit terrain didn't have any color, but Merlin met some colorful show dogs staying at the motel during his early morning sniff. They were traveling to a competition in California and we knew they were professional dogs because the afghans had curlers in their hair!

Wendover Air FieldWe swing by historic Wendover Air Field, which in 1943, was the largest military reserve in the world and home of the Manhattan Engineers. Yes, those Manhattan Engineers who developed the atomic bomb and trained B-29 crews to drop it. The Enola Gay departed from Wendover Air Field in 1945 on its way to Hiroshima, Japan.

Merlin at Bonneville Speed FlatsA few minutes from West Wendover, we enter Utah, a new U.S. state for Merlin, named after the Ute Indians. We’re here for the Bonneville Speed Flats, home to the world’s land speed records. It's our first big road trip destination. I had originally planned Wendover as the first night’s stop but Nevada expanded when we drove into it. We exit onto an asphalt road, following signs for the Speed Flats, Danger Cave State Park, Undeveloped,Merlin at Bonneville Speed Flats right and the Barren Desert Silver Island Mountains on the edge of the Newfoundland Evaporation Basin of the Great Salt Lake. Merlin at Bonneville Speed Flats leftGrowing up near Detroit, I have an inbred need for motor speed, and have long admired the mechanic drivers who create turbojet rocket powered land cruisers to break the sound barrier without exploding. We pull off onto salt, imagining Speed Week with the full desert effect. Merlin at Bonneville Speed Flats Winner Merlin explodes from the car, racing around in the wild open salty sand dirt. He circles me, arcing out into an infinity figure eight with me at the cross center. I give chase and Merlin responds by attempting to set the four paw Aussie world land speed waffle powered record. With no competition in sight, I declare him the winner and rightful holder of the title.

Great Salt LakeBack on the Interstate, the official rest stop sports a concrete tower overlook of the Salt Lake desert. There’s a considerate foot wash faucet for salty sand walkers and an arbitrary spit rail enclosure plunked in the sand labeled Pet Area, which Merlin dubiously visits. We brush off salty sand and settle down for the long drive to Salt Lake City, across the Wendover Air Force Auxiliary Field, Dugway Proving Grounds, and Hill Air Force Range, all Restricted, No Travel. A distant train carries double stacked containers, giving it a shimmering crenelated look on the horizon, perhaps similar to what the Indians saw as the pioneer wagon trains pushed westward. Mournful roadside signs lean weathered and blasted blank. One rest stop sign erected bravely in the salt desert says Keep off Grass. Merlin hasn’t seen anything green since the casino lobby. Another sign greets us at the restrooms, telling us to watch for snakes and scorpions. Snake SignWe don’t stop long. The steady wind spits salty sand into our windows for another hour before we follow signs insisting we pull off and take a trucker brake at Skull Valley. Merlin closes his eyes against the biting salt and dirt. I begin to get a headache from the change in attitude, I mean altitude, as we drive across what’s left of the lake into Salt Lake City. The city raises in sunny terraces up the mountainside and Merlin hangs out the window watching the construction traffic. Since neither Merlin nor I would be admitted into the great Mormon temple for religious reasons, we drive on, leaving I-80 to turn south on US-40, climbing towards 7,000 feet and Park City, home of the Sundance Film Festival, and 2002 Winter Olympics. With Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon blasting, we join the parade of jeeps with roof racked snowboards and Foo Fighters blasting out of their speakers. The road funnels through mountain passes and we pause for a stretch sniff snack at the Heber City town square park. Banners proclaim the annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Buckaroo Fair. The Main Street movie theater is playing Becoming Jane.

Merlin at Starvation ReservoirThe Uinta Mountains open up into beautiful 5,000 feet high plateaus. We practice high altitude breathing while walking on national forest nature trails and stop for a quick bake beside Starvation Reservoir. BringFido.com locates one of the few dog friendly hotels in this bit of Utah for us. It’s the kind of place that you're glad you brought your own shampoo and hand soap, but there’s plenty of hot water and serious water pressure. We drink lots of water and spread out the maps. I go to sleep dreaming of tomorrow's dinosaurs.

Day Three: West Wendover, Nevada to Vernal, Utah. 314 miles.

Feb 20, 2008

Endless Nevada

Merlin Somewhere in NevadaMerlin waited at the open motel door for the world to come back. He had explored the night before, unimpressed with dusty stone fence posts and a neighborhood of small houses with big yards of pavement. Merlin needed green. We had located the only tree in the neighborhood, a wide elm in a vast lawn. Merlin had promptly rolled around on his back in glee, stretching out stiff muscles. Wondering who maintained a thick watered lawn in this desert, I discovered we were guests of the county police department. We smiled at the imagined(?) security cameras and Merlin sat before crossing the street. He waited in the car at the motel while I nipped across the street to a casino restaurant. Tobacco smoke drifted in from the slots as I considered ordering breakfast, usually a safe choice on a foreign menu. Listed side orders included a stack of beef patties, double gravy, and triple fries. No steamed broccoli or tofu in sight. A tired waitress sat down at my table with two plastic cups of water. I asked for chicken tenders. She smiled as I told her the fries were for my dog. “Of course they are, honey. Sounds quite the adventure,” she said, wistfully. Merlin tugged at my awareness so I switched my order to take out. The waitress returned with a fistful of ketchup and sweet sauce packets and a small cup of milk for my morning tea. Ever patient Merlin herded me into our room, the promise of french fries in his nose.

I settled in to unpack and fuss with the new motel wi-fi. Apparently our motel was a favorite of university geologists, who insisted on high speed internet. The room seemed to be in the middle of it's own upgrade with torn curtains and light bulbs missing, but we were glad for a dog friendly place with a tea kettle. I can manage most anything after a strong cup of tea. Merlin watched from the second bed as I reorganized our luggage. He understands suitcases. He gets left behind when they appear, so he hops in and curls up, as if to suggest he is quite under the weight limit so is allowed to go to Europe with us. I’ve promised him I would only take him on an airplane if it were a private lear jet so he could sit with us and look out the window while enjoying in-flight biscuit snacks. Since I usually find myself in people cattle class, Merlin stays blissfully ignorant at home. Unless we’re on a road trip. Hence, his enthusiasm for road trips.

Somewhere in NevadaWe repacked the car in the morning and headed for the lawn tree. Merlin greeted it with gusto, rolling in the grass with his paws punching the sky, as I waved to a patrolman sitting in his police car. The cop waved back and called, “Hey, little Aussie.” With gentle dog manners he asked permission to say hello and offered Merlin the back of his hand for a sniff. Merlin approved and accepted a friendly ear scratch. The patrolman remarked that Aussies are great dogs and I agreed. Most strangers mistake Merlin for a Border Collie or Bernese Mountain Dog, but here in the middle of Nevada is Basque country, and the epicenter of Australian Shepherd dogs. Aussies are actually an American breed, arriving with Basque sheepherders from the Pyrenees who had swung by Australia to collect sheep in the 1800s on their way to the California Gold Rush and open range of Nevada. The Australian Shepherds' strong herding instinct, keen intelligence, and graceful agility made them a favorite at western ranches and rodeos. The Basque are a fascinating people with an ancient language and complex culture. Some scholars consider them the direct descendants of the Paleolithic cave painters of the last Ice Age. Merlin’s Basque ancestry is a deep pulse in his magic.

We joined the I-80 road trains of truck convoys. Wal-Mart triple trailer trucks roared in both directions, feeding the pioneer, Mormon and survival enthusiasts their required two year supply of food and toilet paper. Sudden gusts made the trailers fishtail so we followed and passed with great care. Pet AreaKeeping our vow to stop at every rest area, we amused ourselves with signs insisting we restrain our livestock and pet area signs pointing to the wilderness. Merlin was not pleased with whatever had happened to the ground. He raised a paw pitifully with each step, waiting for me to brush off the crusty soil and sticky seed pods. He almost fell over trying to raise all his paws at once until he accepted the situation, peed where he stood, and quickly returned to the familiar comfiness of his padded back seat. The other parked vehicles towered over us, double rear wheeled pick-up trucks, covered with ranch work. By late morning, the road became emptier, littered with blank, weathered billboards and abandoned homesteads, charred chimneys raising from dry sagebrush. This was heavy metal rock music country with cowboy coffee and burned shells of cars every few miles as we approached Battle Mountain. The Washington Post had crowned Battle Mountain the official Armpit of America in 2001 and the town responded by convincing Old Spice Deodorant to sponsor an annual Pit Festival. Several billboards now declared Battle Mountain the Gateway to the Outback, and the town exit had three gas stations and six coffee shops vying for business with Moto X cycles and ATVs on their roofs. I looked around for X Games athletes but they were off practicing triple flips in private foam pits or base jumping off a skateboard into the Grand Canyon. Not wanting espresso and Red Bull for lunch, I chanced the gas station mini-mart. It was full of locals and I waited in line with a boxed salad as a big Indian filled his cooler with hot cheese stogies for his escape to a new life in Texas. The round woman cashier gave him all her oldest bills and they negotiated for a few minutes over two tattered fives until he bought a pack of gum and she had to give him change.

Next ServiceAfter a quick picnic in a windy dirt park, we returned to the road. Highway signs now warned of something called Dust Fog, for the next 75 miles. Services averaged 100 miles apart, conveniently spaced for drivers to fill up with gas and coffee. Occasional signs forbade us to pick up hitchhikers and I suspected some of the razor wire fenced mining operations were prisons. Wind and dust buff the car. The endless gray flatness is ringed with distant snow topped mountains. We could be driving through time in this timeless landscape. My finger throbs from a paper cut the night before and I think of one of my favorite science fiction authors, Tim Powers. In his book, The Anubis Gates, a modern man travels back to Coleridge’s London in 1810, gets a cut and realizes he’s more likely to die from lack of sanitation than anything else. I make a mental note to borrow Merlin’s antiseptic ointment from his doggie first aid kit and a band-aid from mine when we stop.

Merlin in SageWe exit back into the 21th century with the neon shock of Wendover casinos at the eastern edge of Nevada. Merlin sniffs the strip with great interest as we pass restaurants offering two-for-one all you can eat buffets. I explain the offer doesn’t apply to us because the small print says, Truckers’ Special. We check into a dog friendly Days Inn and I carry my map bag into a friendly, non-smoking restaurant. It’s a slow night and the cute young waiter, Wayne, pours out his dream to become a fashion designer in California. I look him in the eye over my third ice tea, no ice, and tell him yes, he can do that. He smiles, not needing my permission, but welcoming my confidence in him. I leave a huge tip.

Day Two, First Full Day, all Nevada. 306 miles.

Feb 8, 2008

Petroglyphs and Dinosaurs

Merlin with McConkie Ranch PetroglyphsWe woke to overcast skies and an ominous cloud front lurking in the west. The Weather Channel promised rain. We packed quickly and drove towards Dry Fork Canyon, trusting a photocopied hand-drawn map from the motel lobby. Our destination- the Sadie McConkie Ranch Petroglyphs, one of the largest and most accessible collections of rock art in Utah. Dating back a thousand years, these petroglyphs are on private property with public access. The National Register of Historic Places lists this prehistoric site as Fremont Culture petroglyphs characterized by elaborately decorated anthropomorphic figures up to nine feet tall. It sounded astonishing. Well worth a Road Trip detour.

Utah NSHAt the edge of town the road joined the river plateau. Drivers in mud spattered ranch trucks waved at us, appreciating Merlin sniffing the passing horses. A hand painted wooden sign led us to an antler fence parking lot. The doorless welcome hut requested a $2 donation for parking. Painted arrows indicated a trail considerately marked with surveyor ribbons. A young cat greeted me in the hut, meowing to be petted. Merlin waited outside. I signed the guestbook, dropped all my change in the donation can, and visited the pink outhouse. The kitten boldly scampered by Merlin and up the path. Merlin on the Petroglyph PathMerlin trotted under an enormous antler gate and climbed the trail to the 200 foot high sandstone cliff. Excited to be free, he ran around the red rocks and dry plants, yipping. Then he let lose a loud happy bark, which echoed back and forth along the canyon. Listening to himself, he decided that was great fun, and barked some more, exciting distant ranch dogs to join in. I calmed him out of respect for the ancient people who revered this place for 1,200 years. Petroglyph KittenThe kitten reappeared and perched on a rock while I scanned the cliff face. I could not see any rock art but took a photo of the entire cliff anyway, knowing sometimes faint designs show up afterwards with a little levels adjustment. I had memorized a few of the petroglyphs from the wall map in the hut and knew a panther was supposed to be somewhere right in front of me. The kitten meowed and purred as I absently stroked it’s head. Then suddenly the rock art panther leapt into focus, five feet long.Petroglyph Circle Nearby was a faint face, a flowing circle, a small arrow. Once I saw the first subtle design, my brain recalibrated and petroglyphs began to appear everywhere. Always obsessed with prehistoric art since seeing photos of Lascaux as a little kid, I’ve visited Ice Age cave paintings in France, archeology museum collections in London, Paris, and Istanbul, Indian mounds in the American midwest, and rock art all over the Southwest. This was some of the best petroglyphs I’d seen anywhere.

Petroglyph RainThe three of us happily scampered along on the rugged cliff bottom, the kitten leading, Merlin herding, me taking photos. After an hour we crossed a gully and came upon amazing tall figures with elaborate headdresses and beaded collars. Several groups gestured to each other, water drops falling from their eyes as if they were crying for, or bringing, rain. There were heads, feet, circles and spirals, proto-labyrinths, depicting spinning energy.

Petroglyph SpiralWe returned to the car for drinks and snacks. I offered Merlin the dog food that had been sitting in his bowl since California. After our morning rock art romp, he was finally hungry. He nobly ate a few mouthfuls, then I tipped out his stale food for the gathered cats and poured him fresh kibble. He happily gobbled his new meal, sharing his water with the kittens. Perhaps he realized that he won’t have to live the rest of his life in the backseat of the car, so it was ok to eat. We stopped for a final photo as rain clouds gathered. Merlin found a lovely smelly rabbit carcass to roll in. This was turning out to be his best Road Trip day yet.

Vernal DinoWhen I first started planning routes for Merlin’s Road Trip, I spotted Dinosaur National Monument straddling Utah and Colorado. I couldn’t believe I’d never been to Dinosaur National Monument! That decided it. We drive. A proper road trip invites adventurous detours and the American west is the place for detours for dinosaurs.

The Dinosaur National Monument website warns that driving distances to the Dinosaur Quarry Visitor Center are very long: 6 hours from Denver, 4 hours from Salt Lake City, 9 hours from Yellowstone, 5 hours from Moab, UT. But the spectacular geology, Indian Petroglyphs in rock shelters dating from AD 200-1300, and remains of early homesteading and outlaws made it seem worth the effort. Besides, I could nip back into Vernal and turn north through Flaming Gorge, another ‘I can’t believe I’ve never been to’ destination, to rejoin Interstate 80 in Wyoming.

Merlin at Dino NMThe Dino NM website also states that pets are welcome at Dinosaur National Monument. However, they are apparently welcome only where cars are welcome, even if your pet is journalist Road Trip Merlin and you two are the only visitors in the parking lot built for 300 cars, 15 RVs, and 10 buses. Since Merlin couldn’t hike the trails with me and the Dinosaur Quarry Visitor Center with its 45 foot wall of 1,500 in situ bones closed in July 2006 (see what happens if you wait?), we purchased the 50¢ Auto Tour map and drove off. The paved road skimmed brilliantly colored rocks, from pale cream through flaming brick to hard black. Carved by the Green River, the canyon exposed 23 geologic formations, records of extinct ecosystems, the most complete fossil record in North America. The quarry is the world’s best window on the Late Jurassic dinosaurs from 150 million years ago. The Carnegie Museum has excavated bones and made casts for the world’s museums since 1909. I’ve meet several, including London’s Natural History Museum’s Diplodocus (double arm lizard), the longest land animal ever to live, and the four-story tall Brachiosaurus (arm lizard) in Chicago’s Field Museum. The Field Brachiosaurus is the largest mounted dinosaur in the world and now resides in Terminal One at O’Hare International Airport, relocated in 1999 to make room for Sue, the largest T-Rex ever found. The Allosaurus (other lizard) is the most commonly found Utah dinosaur and is the official State Fossil.

Green River RocksThe auto tour was a dead-end, so after an hour we reluctantly made a u-turn and headed back for the park exit. A stiff, frigid wind brought rain and lightning. Aware that we were the tallest object in the valley, I parked by the slightly taller park entrance kiosk trying to unsuccessfully photograph lightning strikes from the dry safety of the car. An official sign told us to unload all our firearms. After following a slow gravel truck with a responsible sign stating it was not responsible for broken windshields, we returned to Vernal to look for lunch.

Petroglyph WarriorDay Four Morning: Vernal, McConkie Ranch Petroglyphs, Dinosaur National Monument, Vernal. Six hours, 57 miles.