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September 20, 2003

"Cinder-Ella"

The alarm rang at 3:30 a.m., signaling the start of our adventure. It was an ungodly hour to be awake, and we knew that we were crazy for doing it, but with all that there was to see and do that day, it was the only way we could do it all.

The Jeep was already fully-loaded that morning - John had packed everything in the roof pod on Thursday and Friday nights. All that we had to do was load the ice chest, in which we would have lots of drinks, as well as lunch meat for sandwiches. (We had also packed a food box with bread, fruit, snacks, cereal, and utensils, so that we would have the option of making our own breakfasts and lunches, rather than eating out at every meal.)

The last thing that we loaded into the Jeep before departing on our trip was one sleeping Mary, dressed in her warm Lion King pajamas. We woke her briefly to put her on the potty; then, as soon as she was buckled into her car seat, she fell right back to sleep.

Our journey began at 4:30 a.m., when we left the house and headed north on I-17, towards Flagstaff. With Mary still asleep, the ride was very quiet, except for the early morning ABC news on KTAR and the occasional conversations about the next eleven days. By the time we reached Camp Verde, the first light was beginning to streak across the sky, and that seemed to wake both of us up a bit. We stopped there, at the junction with SR 260, for brief bathroom break before continuing on towards Flagstaff.

We had hoped that Mary would stay asleep all the way to Flagstaff. We estimated that we would arrived in town shortly after 6:30 a.m., at which point, we would stop for breakfast at the Village Inn and dress Mary for the day. In other words, it would be a repeat of our Grand Canyon adventure, a scenario that had worked very well for us then.

Mary, on the other hand, decided that 6:15 a.m. would be a better wake-up time that morning. We were just passing through Munds Park when she announced, "I wake up!"

And then she demanded, "I want cereal!"

Now, you try explaining to a stubborn three year-old to wait another fifteen or twenty minutes, until we arrived in Flagstaff. "No, I want cereal!" she cried out, and soon thereafter, she burst into tears. That was when we decided to pull off at the next exit, to serve Mary a bowl of Cheerios.

Once she was quiet, we drove like hell to get to Flagstaff before she ran out of Cheerios. We timed it just right, too, for she had just finished her cereal when we pulled into the parking lot of the Village Inn on Milton Avenue, at 6:30 a.m. as planned.

We didn't spend too much time eating breakfast at the Village Inn, but we did take the time to relax, now that we were out of the Jeep. Mary had the chance to color pictures. She even made a huge mess when she spilled her glass of milk on the floor! (Better there than in the Jeep!)

Soon, we were on the road again, on our way to our first stop of the day: Sunset Crater National Monument, just off of US 89, a few miles outside of Flagstaff. This would be the first of thirteen National Parks and Monuments that we would visit over the next eleven days.

We stopped first at the visitor center, which had just opened up for the day. After showing the ranger our National Park pass - and after helping Mary stamp her National Park Passport book - we walked through the small visitor center to view the various displays and educational materials. We learned that Sunset Crater was only one of many volcanoes located in that area. These volcanoes were active hundreds of years ago, and they had left behind entire hillsides covered in cinder.

One of the craters that John wanted to see was Lennox Crater, which involved a half-mile hike uphill, gaining about 300 feet in elevation, to the top of the crater. A difficult hike indeed, especially since I was six and a half months pregnant, but it was one that we were determined to do.

We left the visitor center and drove a few miles up the road to the Lennox Crater Trailhead. There, we parked the Jeep in the pull-out across the road, where we saw a scenic vista filled with giant lava rocks and cinder-covered hills that appeared shiny and smooth in the early morning sunshine.

Hiking up the steep slopes of Lennox CraterTaking with us one bottle of water each, John and Mary and I began the short but very steep hike up to Lennox Crater. Needless to say, the hike was a groaner, but we took it one step at a time, taking breaks whenever necessary, until we finally reached the top.

It took us twenty minutes to reach the top of Lennox Crater - a large, bowl-shaped crater that was completely covered with cinder and dotted with a sparse forest of pine trees. The trail ended at the rim of the crater, where we found a posts on which there was probably once a sign. We hiked all the way to the signpost...and about twenty feet from the end, Mary, who had hiked most of the trail by herself, fell down and skinned her knees!

Mary & Heather on top of Lennox CraterMary recovered from her fall rather quickly, and in just a few minutes she was smiling again as she made her way to the end of the trail. She stopped at the signpost, and John and I took turns taking pictures next to the post with her, using our brand new digital camera. (We had just purchased it on Labor Day, and now that we had gone digital, we had no intention of using our 35mm camera on this trip!)

We didn't spend too much time on Lennox Crater, since we still had much to do that day, so once we were satisfied with our pictures, we started back down the hill to the Jeep. Due to the considerably steep slope of the trail, we had to take our time going back downhill, too, so that we wouldn't slip and fall on the loose cinder that covered the trail. (Mary had already demonstrated that the trail was slippery, and we certainly didn't want anymore injuries!) Of course, even though we were out of shape - and I was very pregnant - it still only took us fifteen minutes to complete the hike.

Once we were back at the trailhead, we got back into the Jeep and began driving towards our next destination - Wupatki National Monument, located just 36 miles north of Sunset Crater. To get there, we would take the Loop Road north from Sunset Crater to the Wupatki visitor center.

Along the way, John found a point of interest that he insisted we check out: the Painted Desert Vista picnic area, located just a few miles outside of the monument, along Loop Road. According to the Arizona map, the Strawberry Crater Wilderness Area was nearby, so he suggested that we stop there to visit, as it would be our only chance at getting a new wilderness area during our trip.

We parked the Jeep at the picnic area, and from there, we began to hike cross-country, through the pinions and junipers, for about a quarter of a mile. Of course, without a topographical map, it was hard to tell if we had entered the wilderness area or not, but we decided to claim victory anyway and sort out the details later.

Getting Mary to hike back to the Jeep took quite a bit of effort on our parts. As soon as we reached our turn-around point, Mary found a rather large rock formation that she wanted to climb, so we spent some time there helping her out. The rock proved to be a lot of fun - so much fun that she didn't want to stop playing on it when it was time to go. Eventually, John scooped her up and plopped her down on his shoulder to get her going; then, he made her walk the rest of the way back to the Jeep. She wasn't happy about it at first, but once she got distracted by the jackrabbit - and tried to chase it - she stopped complaining.

As soon as we returned to the Jeep, we left the picnic area and continued towards Wupatki National Monument.

Wupatki National Monument is comprised of many different pueblos: Wukoki, Lomaki, Nalakihu, Citadel, and the largest and most popular of all, Wupatki. Being limited on our time, we weren't going to be able to spend time at all of the different pueblos, so John and I chose to visit only two of them: Wukoki and Wupatki.

Our first stop was at the Wukoki Pueblo, which was located off of a side road only one mile from the visitor center. At the end of the road was a large parking lot and a trailhead, from which it was about an eighth of a mile, along a paved trail, to the ruins.

Mary explores Wukoki RuinsThe Wukoki ruins were very interesting, mainly because we were allowed to climb up into them. (Of course, visitors are still asked to respect the ruins, as they are part of history.) I very much enjoyed exploring all of the rooms and walking around the crumbling rock walls that once housed hundreds of Sinagua Indians. Mary, too, enjoyed walking through the ruins, as most of the doorways were just her size!

We completed our hiking tour of Wukoki then proceeded to the Wupatki visitor center. Having already shown our park pass at Sunset Crater, we weren't required to do so again at Wupatki, as they were part of the same monument, but we did stop to get another stamp for Mary's book before we headed outside to hike to the Wupatki ruins.

To view the Wupatki Pueblo, we hiked along a half-mile long paved trail that looped around the gigantic ruins. Each point of interest along the way was numbered to correspond to a brief lecture in a tour book that we had purchased for a dollar at the trailhead. We saw, for example, the blowhole, through which cool air would blow, and several community rooms - holes in the ground where the ancient Indians would gather for ceremonies and the like. Inside of the pueblo itself, in each of the rooms, there were mortars and pestles and other artifacts out for public display.

The Wupatki PuebloThe Sinagua (or the people who lived "without water") were said to have migrated to the area now known as Northern Arizona in the 1100's, possibly to escape drought conditions along the Colorado Plateau. During that time, the volcanoes were active and helped the Indians develop their farmlands. It is believe that once the volcanoes became dormant, though, the people moved on to find new homes where they could farm. Their pueblos have remained marvelously intact with the passage of time, despite the harsh climate of the high desert, and now give those of us who visit them insight into life a thousand years ago.

Needless to say, we were quite impressed with the Wupatki ruins, and we took our time completing the half-mile hike. Once we were finished, we moved on to our next destination: the Lomaki Pueblo, where we planned to have lunch.

It was getting quite windy that afternoon - and Mary was getting a bit cranky - so we hurried through our lunch and decided not to explore the Lomaki Pueblo. After we were finished eating, we put Mary back into the Jeep and hoped that she would take her nap while we drove to the Navajo National Monument. Thankfully, she did; by the time we got to Cameron, along US 89, she was fast asleep.

Unfortunately, our quiet time did not last very long, because not more than a half an hour after Mary fell asleep, she started coughing - and it was that dry, seal-bark cough that is typically worse when she is asleep, the one that her doctor referred to as "nocturnal asthma", though it is not technically "asthma". It was always the first sign that she was getting sick, and since this was the first day of our vacation...well, let's just say that it wasn't a good sign of things to come.

The cough wasn't getting any better, so we stopped alongside of the road to pull her cough medicine out of her suitcase. (Even though she wasn't sick when we left the house, we're not crazy enough to leave on vacation without bringing her medicine with us...just in case!) Although we had to wake her up in order for her to take her medicine, it did at least calm her cough so that she could fall back to sleep.

Mary checks out a sweathouse at the Navajo National MonumentWe continued along Highway 89 until we reached Highway 160, which would take us through Tuba City and into the Navajo National Monument - our final stop of the day. Navajo National Monument is located nine miles off of US 160 on SR 564, which is about 20 miles southwest of Kayenta. It is located on the Navajo Nation, but not far from the Hopi Indian Reservation.

We spent the rest of that day hiking to the Betatakin Ruins overlook, along the Sandal Trail - a one mile (round trip) paved trail leading from the visitor center to an overlook of those famous ruins. En route, we stopped to take pictures of the hogans and the sweathouses at the visitor center. (The sweathouses were especially fascinating to Mary, as they were just her size.)

The trail began with a gradual descent then leveled out as it skimmed along the edge of the canyon in which the ruins are located. There are many wooden bridges along the way - bridges that fascinated Mary and motivated her to hike at least part of the trail. At the very end of the trail is an overlook, with guardrails to prevent people from falling over the edge into the canyon. The overlook is equipped with telescopes in order to view the Betatakin Ruins, which were built into the opposite side of the canyon, hundreds of years ago.

Betatakin Ruins, as seen from our zoom lensLike Wupatki, the Betatakin Ruins are wonderfully intact and well protected due to their location within the canyon. In order to preserve them, the National Park Service conducts guided tours into the canyon to view the ruins up close, but these tours are only available once daily, at 9:00 a.m. There were also backpacking trips to the ruins at Keet Seel; those are also available by a permit that can be obtained by the National Park Service, but Keet Seel had already been closed for the season - again, to ensure that the ruins are well-preserved.

Having seen the Betatakin Ruins, John and Mary and I hiked back to the visitor center. Our journey for the day was over, and it was time for us to check into our motel for the night.

As we left the Navajo National Monument, we took Highway 564 back to US 160, then drove into the town of Kayenta - a very dry desert town located only eighteen miles south of the Arizona-Utah border. Due to its proximity to Monument Valley, however, it had a lot of tourist traffic and therefore had several large, high-priced hotels. We stayed at the Best Western on Main Street, which was the least expensive of the hotels, but was still quite expensive.

Although it was a Saturday night, our choices for dinner were limited as most of the restaurants in town were closed. We settled for the Wagon Wheel at the Holiday Inn, where we had a delicious dinner and Indian fry bread with honey for dessert. We did not, however, have any sort of adult beverage with our dinner, for as I mentioned earlier, we were on the Navajo Nation, where the sale of alcohol is illegal - indeed, a very "dry" desert town, in more ways that one! (John had forgotten about that and was very disappointed that he could not have a beer to drink with his pork chops!)

"Ah, but tomorrow, we're heading into Utah," I reminded him. Utah's liquor laws were just as annoying, as we had discovered during our trip to Zion National Park in 1999. John was getting discouraged - after all, this was his vacation, too, and he wanted to enjoy it!

After dinner - and after a brief shopping trip to the neighborhood Basha's - John and Mary and I returned to our motel room, where we spent the evening relaxing and watching television. John also brought out his laptop computer in order for us to download the forty-four pictures we had taken on our digital camera that day. All of the pictures were now safely stored on the hard drive of his laptop...and the camera's memory was empty again, ready for another day of pictures.

While we were viewing the pictures, John came up with a great idea. Rather than send postcards to our friends and family, we decided to send them all e-postcards everyday. He put together a mailing list on his Outlook Mail and wrote a note explaining what we had done that day. Then, I edited three pictures in Adobe Photoshop to attach to the e-mail. (I was taking a course in Adobe Photoshop, so it was a good chance for me to practice using it.) The idea went over very well, as everyone loved seeing our pictures and hearing about our adventures as they happened.

Shortly after John shut down his laptop, the three of us decided that it was time to retire for the evening - after all, we had gotten such an early start that day and had done so much. By 9:00 p.m., all three of us were asleep.

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