The Arizona Expedition 2001

Having once again secured my father's clunker of a Dodge, my daughters (Sunniva, 15 and Idun, 13) and I were planning to take off on Wednesday, the 14th of July, bound for the Grand Canyon and points northeast. In preparation, I had spent at least two weeks trying to figure out why the car battery constantly went flat. We had removed and checked the alternator, changed the battery and tightened the battery clamps. The cable to the battery clamp needed scraping. This seemed to fix the problem. I put in a new battery. The day before we left, the battery went dead again. When a friend came over to help, he discovered that I had forgotten to tighten the battery clamps. Embarrassing.

Bright and early the following morning, we set off. Everything went smoothly for the first 10 miles, then the motor missed. We managed another 10 miles before the next disconcerting hiccup. As we rolled into the hills of Oklahoma, the attacks increased in frequency, but the car was running smoothly for about 20 minutes after each attack. Figuring that I would never be able to demonstrate the symptoms on command, I just kept on driving. Suddenly, on a 20-mile stretch of exit-less freeway, the engine stopped cold, and we rolled to a halt on the shoulder. I changed the battery. (The old one was ok- I checked with a pair of insulated pliers). It soon became obvious that there was another problem. The spark plugs were not firing at all. After a cursory inspection of the engine, we pushed the car further off the road and I ordered the girls into the snake-infested bushes so that the tractor-trailers would not pulverize them. (They only found a discarded snake-skin). By then, the temperature had risen to about 40 degrees Centigrade, and the traffic continued to rush past at around 120 km/h. Some helpful souls honked at us.

I was considering swallowing my pride and looking helpless when a man stopped in his pickup. He soon found that the distributor cap was loose, and after clamping it down, the engine started easily. He noticed that it jumped off again when I turned over the motor, and readjusted it. We resumed our journey, full of optimism. We celebrated with a junk food and chipped-ice binge at the next gas station.

The car ran smoothly until we neared the Texas border, when it began missing again. I bypassed several exits, looking for a camping ground. Finally, the engine got so rough that I pulled off. The main garage was closed, but a little one-man operation was still open. I showed him the distributor cap, which proved to have a crack wide enough to accommodate an ink pen. He was amazed that the car had managed to limp into his station on its own wheels. He sent his son off to the next town in a borrowed car to buy a new cap, and replaced it. He charged only 26 dollars. He said that the charges at the rival garage often forced unlucky vacationers to cut their vacations short.

After finding that the gasoline was about 20% cheaper at Wal-mart gas stations, we had invested 100 dollars in a Wal-mart discount-card in Oklahoma City. After doing so, we saw no more Wal-mart gas stations until we returned to Oklahoma.

The car seemed as good as new. I felt like I had a new lease on life. We crossed the state boundary to Texas, drove through a quaint little town called Shamrock looking for a camping ground, and finally settled for a patch of grass behind a lawn-mower repair shop (near to the garbage heap) in a caravan park. It was also fairly expensive, since we were paying for sewage, hot water and electricity hookups for our tent. We ate a few invisible bugs with our cereal and retired.

We passed the exit to the Clarendon, Texas off-ramp an hour down the road. This led to a campground on a lake, with a grill and trees, for the total fee of 2 dollars. We postponed this pleasure until the return trip, when we would presumably be broke. After several Wal-mart detours, we realized that the discount gas-stations had not yet been built. We reached Red Rock State Park on the outskirts of Gallup, where after repeated efforts, we finally managed to light a fire. The kids had started with my new cigarette lighter, but had lost it somewhere along the line. We used matches instead. As we polished off the last hot dogs, the lighter exploded violently in the grill. The people in the neighboring campsite gasped "What was THAT? I had to confess that that we had lost a lighter.

Friday the 13th. We decided to stay an extra day in order to see some Indians dance in downtown Gallop the following evening. We spent the day making a long circuit of the surrounding points of interest. We visited two national monuments, one of which had a nice collection of Indian ruins. The first stop was at El Malpais. I took a picture of the girls in front of a "Watch out for Elk" sign, just to prove that Norway does not have a monopoly on them. A thunderstorm was rapidly approaching the mesa as we set out to visit the ruins at El Morro National Monument. Lightning was striking everything but on the top of the mesa, where the ruins happened to be. We passed one elderly couple on the steps fleeing the storm. They thought that we would probably be fried if we went up there. We could see the thunderstorm approaching fast. Once on top, we took a few quick pictures, but it started raining cats and dogs, and we also fled the scene. By this time, the path leading up to the mesa was blockaded. After the storm, we walked down a nearby trail to look at grafitti scratched into the stone, some some of which dated back to the earliest Spanish expeditions.

We returned to Gallup, where we were allowed to choose 4 cm-wide Indian pots; a free attraction in a tourist store. I also bought a small bag of polished (and garishly dyed) stones for making earrings. We then went to the scaffolded seats where we awaited the Indians. They arrived, but mostly as spectators. They sold Navajo fry-bread and jewelry. I bought the girls some fry-bread, which is kind of a round, puffy biscuit, made by throwing a flour tortilla in boiling oil. Powdered sugar is sprinkled on top. After some initial hesitance, the kids got hooked.

Half of the show consisted of Hawaiian dancing and singing by the wife of the master of ceremonies. An elaborately costumed 5-year-old boy stomped in circles, followed by the show-leader's little sister. Cute kids. Finally the show-leader himself got costumed and began to dance with about 30 rings, which he interlocked in various patterns to resemble a globe, wings and so on. He was as fast as greased lightning, and was apparently the world champion in this branch of Indian dancing.

We returned to Red Rock Park, where the neighbors had tied our tent to the picnic table after it had wandered off two times during a thunderstorm. It had blown away despite the fact that it was anchored with stakes, and weighted down with three sleeping bags and three mattresses. Secure in the knowledge that the lighter had been located, we cooked hotdogs and settled down to wait for some local fireworks. When it came, the display only lasted about 5 minutes. The kids were rather jaundiced, after having witnessed a spectacular 4th of July show in Fort Smith the week before. They were not impressed.

The following morning, we decided to walk to Castle Rock, at the top of Red Rock canyon. This formation lay only about 3 miles up the valley, but the trails were not marked, and we scrambled all over the hillside before we found a way up to our goal. We tried following some footsteps, but their owner was obviously as unenlightened as we were. We took the same route on our return, rather than expending another 3 hours looking for the alternative path to the floor of the valley. Back at headquarters, a ranger told me that his boss had refused to let him set up trail markers. Two that others had set up had been moved, and now led to a vertical drop-off. Remnant of trails left by other wanderers had disappeared in the thunderstorm.

Having regained the campground, we headed for the Petrified Forest, which we had never seen. We entered at the north gate, near highway I-40. This end of the park mostly sported panorama-views of the Painted Desert (layers of mauve, magenta, vermilion and gray volcanic ash. This was the same formation that held petrified wood to the south, but we saw none. As we approached the southern end of the park, petrified logs appeared, becoming gradually more numerous.

All the portable bits had been freighted away by tourists, despite threats of fire and damnation on the part of the rangers, who also posted letters written by penitent rock thieves who had experienced catastrophic runs of bad luck after pilfering a chip of petrified wood. By the time we got to the south entrance, we had to bolt into the museum to avoid being soaked by rain or hit by lightning.

After the storm had gone over, we stopped at a store just outside the entrance, where we were offered a free camping site. Since Thor was throwing lightning bolts in all directions, we decided to continue back to the freeway. About this time, I found out why the left-hand windshield-wiper had made an odd sound when I tried to wash under it. It had broken off. I stopped to consult the map, but changed my mind when a lightning bolt struck about 300 feet away. By the time we got back to civilization, and picked up some free pieces of petrified wood at a store, it was getting dark again. We went to a KOA campground that charged us 21 dollars to pitch our little tent. The ground was soft enough to allow us to pound in the stakes, though.

The next morning, we visited Meteor Crater. An impressive hole I once flew over in a small airplane. Back then, the highway was a tiny ribbon that stretched from horizon to horizon, and we had followed it. The names of the towns were written on the water towers, and we could always pinpoint our location. The conducted hike along the rim required sturdy shoes (Sunniva ran back to the car to exchange hers), and hats, sunglasses and water were strongly suggested. The ranger looked like he was about to take on the Grand Canyon. I thought he was blind at first, since he had a white walking stick and dark glasses. He also had boots and a wide-brimmed hat. After checking everyone’s shoes (and rejecting some), he led us over a carefully constructed trail for about 150 meters, where he gave his lecture and led us back to safety again.

We resumed our journey towards the west. We finally reached Sunset Crater National Monument, where we have camped the last two years, only to find it closed to camping. We followed the road towards the Wupatki ruins, which runs through a national forest, and turned off the road to camp in the free area. The only other campers were a family with a collection of off-road vehicles. We put up our tent a discreet 200 yards from them; close enough to feel protected, and far enough to avoid infringing on their turf. Again, we toasted hotdogs and marshmallows, and retired. There was probably a lot a wild life, but it didn't bother us. I think Sunniva heard a mouse outside the tent once. Idun and I stayed up late, lying on the car hood spotting airplanes and satellites. One can spot about 5 airplanes at any given time, and find a satellite in a couple of minutes. Shooting stars appear at about 10-minute intervals.

The next morning, we made a round of the ruins at Wupatki. The main ruin by the museum is totally regulated and mostly re-constructed. We spent most of our time at more neglected ruins which the kids could explore without being regulated by "keep on the sidewalk" signs and hoards of tourists. One ruin had not even been excavated at all. It was next to an enormous hole which was actually a collapsed sinkhole in the limestone. As we left, we drove up a steep hill, and I shifted to second gear. Shifting back, I somehow overshot the "drive" notch and got the car into neutral. The car suddenly began to lose speed. I gunned the engine to no avail. Finally realizing what I had done, I tried to put the gear into "drive" with the engine still racing. The engine said "clunk" and died. I was pretty sure I had done something catastrophic to the transmission, but when I restarted, the car ran fine. After this shock, I decided to stop dead each time I changed to low gear. We lumbered on towards the Grand Canyon, stopping at all the Indian sales booths. I had enough excitement for one day.

We decided to stay in the Grand Canyon campground in order to use the laundry. We were getting pretty desperate for clean clothes, having forgotten a bucket of freshly washed, wet laundry in Arkansas. We also took showers. Since we had spent 15 bucks for the campsite, and a small fortune for the laundry, all three of us went into the dressing booth, and took turns with the 5-minute, $1.25 shower. The campfire lecture was hosted by a man who called himself "Ranger Rick", a title borrowed from the Yogi Bear cartoons. He was pretty hyper, but gave an interesting lecture on the various names of the area. When he asked the audience for the names of some of the trails, I mentioned some pretty remote ones, which seemed to startle him. We thought we heard a bear in the bushes that night, but it turned out to be someone snoring in a neighboring tent.

We parked the car at the backcountry office and took the bus to the top of the South Kaibab Trail. This turned out to be a complicated procedure, involving a bus shift and a quarter-mile hike between bus routes. Apparently, the administration was attempting to route all traffic in the park through the new visitor center, regardless of their actual destination. The expected 10-minute trip took over an hour, and we didn't get started until 9 am. The first three hours were easy. Sunniva ran on ahead, and was generally about a kilometer ahead of Idun and myself. It took us six hours to get down. Towards the end, I deeply regretted bringing our heavy Wal-mart tent, and swore that someone else was going to carry it out. We left our sleeping bags in the car, bringing only blankets to lie on and inflatable mattresses to insulate us from the ground, which never did cool off. The daytime temperature was around 40 degrees. When we reached the creek leading into the river, we lounged in it for about an hour. Fully clothed, in my case. We could also drink out of the creek with relative impunity, since there is little upstream except 20 miles of uninhabited canyon. Lovely! We had heard about a canteen which was still open, so I bought the kids lemonade and candy bars. They didn't like lemonade! After the ranger lecture, which was about the rocks of the Grand Canyon (a subject on which I was well-versed from before), we returned to the canteen, which had now been converted into a beer hall, and found out that we could get water with ice-cubes for free!

We had left our sleeping bags in the car, and just brought a blanket to lie on, and inflatable mattresses to insulate us from the ground (which never did cool off). The tent stakes bent like soda straws. The 20-kg.campground food boxes would probably have kept the tent in place, in a storm. We were warned to check the boxes for lizards before closing them. They were apparently having a problem with lizards which had been fried after being inadvertently trapped in the food boxes. The campground was crawling with microscopic ants which could easily waltz through the mesh in the tent. At that point, we no longer gave a hoot. Nibbling on our ice, we returned to camp. I soaked my t-shirt in the creek, and we retired.

We broke camp at 7 am the next morning. Not a really early start, but good enough; as we intended to take a long pause halfway up at Indian Gardens, anyway. The path follow either the river or a little creek most of the way. I wouldn't want to drink it, but it was nice for cooling off and wading in. The girls were now bearing the heavy tent, and taking turns carrying a very light knapsack. We didn't need to carry much water on the way up, as there were three places where we could re-fill our bottles. The water was luke-warm, however. A group of riverboats were waiting for a new flock of passengers at the bottom of the Bright Angel trail.

Nearing Indian Gardens, we saw a helicopter reeling in something, perhaps a person on a stretcher. When we arrived, a man was lying on the bank of the creek being administered liquids by IV drip (A fairly common situation). We later saw him being freighted out on a mule. We weren't allowed to feed the tame squirrels (they can be rabid), but they did stumble over a couple of Cheerios we inadvertently dropped in their path. Ignoring dire warnings about heat strokes posted along the trail, we kept plodding upwards, reaching the rim at 7 pm. That came to about 12 hours for the uphill trek, the same as the year before. We also walked to the car, having just missed the shuttle-bus. This took an additional half-hour, as we couldn't remember where we had parked.

We fled to McDonalds, just outside the park entrance, and bought an unconscionable amount of junk food. Stuffed, we drove to the adjacent campground and asked about prices. Once again, it would cost us 20 dollars to put up our tent. When I asked Idun if she thought we should pay it, a man standing next to us commented that he just had, in Norwegian! He had a car with 3 daughters outside, all of them Norwegian. The kids talked a while, and we convinced them that their planned one-day round-trip to the bottom of the canyon was highly inadvisable. We were too exhausted to socialize, however, and simply made camp and went to bed.. (Only Idun had the moral fortitude to shower). When we woke up, the Norwegians had departed.

After taking farewell with the grocery store at Grand Canyon, we headed towards Page and Lake Powell on the Utah border. There is an off-road beach in the national monument there, where we could camp for 6 dollars a night, right on the beach. Of course, we share this beach with hundreds of jeeps, trucks, all-terrain vehicles and boats. The kids dragged the tent down to the water, while I searched for a place where I could park and extricate myself from the next day. The opportunities for getting stuck in the sand were overwhelming.

The people already on this patch of beach were trying to save about 100 yards of waterfront for a friend whom they were expecting. They tried dissuade the girls from camping there, but the girls seemed so confused that the occupants assumed that couldn't understand English. This gave them a guilty conscience, and the girls were allowed to set up the tent after all. The occupants became very conciliatory as the evening progressed, and even inflated our rubber raft on their electric pump. A middle-aged French couple pitched their tent behind ours. They were encountering difficulties, since a squall was passing, and the unanchored tent was trying to take off. I mustered the girls, and we helped hold it down while the husband returned to his car for the ice chest. That is what we were using to anchor our tent. No rocks were available.

Later in the evening, the neighbors on the other side tried to pull a boat out of the water with an enormous pickup truck. It made ˝ meter deep tracks between the two tents, and lost and ran over a plastic bottle of blue gunk for use in the septic tank of the portable toilet. This exploded, spraying the stuff for 30 feet in all directions. We stood guarding our tents with the other campers, offering unsolicited advice and encouragement. After about a half-hour, they got the truck and boat-trailer on solid ground, and departed. It smelled very flowery in the tent that night.

The next day, the kids were ready to continue on towards Mesa Verde, in the 4-corners area. I topped off the oil, power steering fluid and gas, and we headed out across the Navajo indian reservation. We were required to use the headlights in the daytime there, so we tried to do without the air conditioning, to spare the alternator. We roasted. At Four Corners, we paid 2 dollars each to visit one final Indian Market and buy fry bread. The girls gave their e-mail address to a 13 year old girl running one of the booths. We bought some last bits of Indian jewelry, and decided that we had better start conserving our money, which was evaporating.

Mesa Verde was quite a distance, and we didn't get there until about 5 pm. It had been hit by a major forest fire the previous summer, and over half the national park was incinerated. After about 20 miles on a winding road, we got to the museum, which had just closed for the day. The most interesting ruins could only be visited by bus, and the others required guides. It was too late, so we just drove around the lookouts and gazed down on them. We had planned to stay in the campground, but they also wanted 19 dollars a night. I thought this was rather presumptuous, since the much nicer campground at Grand Canyon had only cost 15 dollars per night. We drove on east towards Durango, Colorado, taking a long dirt road up into the San Juan National Forest, where we finally found a campground for 10 dollars. It was called the Transit Campground, for some reason. This was quite high- about 8000 feet, and comfortably cool.

After consulting the map, I decided to follow what looked like a very nice highway leading southeast towards Albuquerque, New Mexico. It also went close to two more major Indian ruins, Aztec and Chaco Canyon National Monuments. With my national-park card, the entrance would be free.

Aztec was near the highway, with ruins you could wander through and a nice museum. They also had trash cans, which we needed desperately (we hadn't found any in the campground).

Chaco Canyon was another story. The pavement disappeared right after we left the highway. From there, we followed about 15 miles of corrugated road to the headquarters. The ruins were scattered at fairly wide intervals, and all had trails leading up to them. We went through most of them, although Idun, who wants to be an archeologist, wasn't satisfied. The campground there had sky-high prices, and we continued on towards Albuquerque. The road was being worked on, and we were met by an announcement that there was road-work for the next 120 miles. This proved accurate. We crept along the road at 35, 45 or 55 mph for about 5 hours, and when it became dark, we were still far from Albuquerque. Far from anything at all, in fact. Finally, we came to a little town called "Cuba". We found an all-night gas-station grocery store, and asked for permission to park in the corner of their parking lot. The older couple who were running the store were very helpful, saying we could use the restroom, and that they had coffee also. We put the duffel bags behind the front seat, and spread our foam-rubber pad over the seats. I took the front seat. The kids slept foot-to-head, complaining about each other's feet. We slept rather well, but the darned steering wheel kept getting in the way.

We started at 7 am the next morning, filling gas with our rapidly-diminishing bundle of 20-dollar bills. We drove to Albuquerque, got on I-40, and headed home. When we reached Amarillo, Texas, we were down to 20 dollars cash, and about 40 on the Wal-mart card. There were no Wal-mart gas stations on the highway, but we followed some verbal instructions and stumbled over one that actually did have a gas station. This precluded our having to wait until the banks opened on Monday and cash our Norwegian money (which could only be done in major cities). We also bought several bags of potato chips and ice out of the 40 dollars remaining on the Wal-mart card. Much encouraged, we drove to Claremont, Texas, where we camped by the lake for only 2 dollars. We toasted hotdogs and marshmallows, and splashed happily in the luke-warm water. After a while, all the Sunday visitors went home, and peace sank over the campground.

By now, we were within a day's striking distance of Arkansas. We drove to Oklahoma City, where I topped the gas tank with the remaining 17 dollars on the Wal-mart card. We still had the 8 dollars cash, and decided that we could manage without exchanging the Norwegian money. We decided to splurge on a taco dinner. After stopping at Taco Bell, I found that the battery was stone-dead. I hadn't bothered screwing down a stabilizing arm on the battery, and it had short-circuited the lead connector. The connector was about halfway melted off, and was seated very loosely. The gas station did not have battery contacts, though they had a wide selection of cute little drink holders, antenna decorations and hands-free devices. I shifted batteries, and was given directions to an auto-parts store down the street, where I replaced the connector, this time carefully screwing down the stabilizing arm. We rolled into Mountainburg, Arkansas about 5 p.m. that evening, having once again proven that the car was indestructible and that unplanned trips are more interesting than planned ones.