Pat and Dave’s Excellent Adventure – Travel Maps

I’ve been trying to find a way to map out the entire trip so far but have been stymied by the limitations of Google Maps, which doesn’t allow more than 10 stops on a map, and other free software tools which have similar limitations. (Heaven forbid that I would actually buy some mapping software!) After considerable fussing, I abandoned the idea of a single map and started creating partial maps using the online Rand McNally Trip Maker tool. I’ll periodically add new maps as I reach the limit for stops (either 25 per the Rand McNally software limit or fewer when the giant numbers on the maps begin to obscure the actual trip line. Be sure to check in on this post as you read through the others describing our activities.

MAP 1:

Map1

MAP 1 LEGEND:

1: Home
2: Nick’s place
3: Pine Lake State Park, IA
4: Watkins Woolen Mill State Park, MO
5: Eisenhower State Park, KS
6: Boiling Springs State Park, OK
7: Palo Duro Canyon State Park
8: Artesia RV Park, Artesia, NM
9: Carlsbad Caverns National Park
10: Guadalupe Mountains National Park
11: Loma Paloma RV Park, Presidio, TX
12: Big Bend National Park

MAP 2

Map2

MAP 2 LEGEND:

1: Big Bend National Park
2: Desert Willow RV Park, Van Horn, TX
3: Ft. Willcox RV Park, Willcox, AZ
4: Chiricahua Mountains National Monument
5: I10 RV Park, Benson, AZ
6: Picacho Peak State Park, AZ
7: Sentinel Peak RV Park, Tucson, AZ
8: Sunflower RV Resort, Surprise, AZ
9: Leaf Verde RV Resort, Buckeye, AZ
10: Meteor Crater RV Park, Meteor City, AZ
11: Petrified Forest National Park

MAP 3:

Map3

MAP 3 LEGEND:

1: Petrified Forest National Park
2: Winslow, AZ
3: Arizona Meteor Crater
4: Walnut Canyon National Monument
5: Silver View RV Resort, Bullhead City, AZ
6: Lake Mead National Recreation Area
7: Death Valley National Park
8: Sierra Trails RV Park, Mojave, CA
9: Campbell Cove RV Resort, Lake Havasu City, AZ
10: Rolle’s Lynda Vista RV Park Yuma, AZ
11: Salton Sea State Recreation Area
12: Joshua Tree National Park
13: Catalina Spa RV Resort, Desert Hot Springs, CA

MAP 4

Map 4a

 

MAP 4 LEGEND:

1: Catalina Spa RV Resort, Desert Hot Springs, CA
2: Shady Haven RV Park, Bakersfield, CA 
3: Coyote Canyon RV Resort, Morgan Hill, CA
4: San Francisco, CA
5: Limekiln State Park, CA
6: Hearst San Simeon State Park, CA
7: Wine Country RV Park, Paso Robles, CA
8: Sunrise RV Park, Santa Barbara, CA
9: Channel Islands National Park (Visitor Center), Ventura, CA
10: Doheny State Beach, Dana Point, CA
11: Sunland RV Resort, La Mesa, CA
12: Rolles Lynda Vidta RV Park, Yuma, AZ
13: Oasis Palms RV Park, Thermal, CA
14: Joshua Tree National Park, Cottonwood Campground
15: Catalina Spa RV Resort, Desert Hot Springs, CA

Rand McNally is not working out, so I’m reverting to Google. As a result, there is a change in format starting with Map 5.

MAP 5:

Map 5

MAP 5 LEGEND:

A: Catalina Spa RV Resort, Desert Hot Springs, CA
B: Pirates Den RV Resort, Parker, AZ
C: Silver View RV Resort, Bullhead City, AZ
D: Temple View RV Resort, St. George, UT
E: Zion Canyon RV Campground, Springdale, UT
F: Redcliff Dune Trail (way stop)
G: Lake Mead National Recreation Center, Boulder Beach Campground
H: Grand Canyon Camper Village, Tusayan, AZ

MAP 6:

Map 6

MAP 6 LEGEND:

A: Grand Canyon Camper Village, Tusayan, AZ
B: Homolovi Ruins State Park, Winslow, AZ
C. Lavaland RV Park, Grants, NM
D. Blaze-In-Saddle RV Park, Tucumcari, NM
E: Seward County Park, Liberal, KS
F. Sand Hills State Park, Buehler, KS
G. Wallace State Par, Cameron, MO
H. Pine Lake State Park, Eldora, IA
I. Nick’s Place
J. Home
 

Pat and Dave’s Excellent Adventure – PART 5: Back to the Boonies

We last left off in Phoenix, having dropped off our rental car and heading away after our 2-week stay in primarily urban settings.

Nov 26-27 (Monday, Tuesday): We drove north from Phoenix, past Flagstaff and on toward Winslow, AZ. The drive was very interesting as the highway climbed into the mountains, leaving the cactus plants behind in favor of Douglas fir and ponderosa pine. It was tough going for the RV – we would pass a truck lumbering along at a snail’s pace on the uphill sections only to have it barrel past at lightning speed on the next downhill – and we got about the worst mileage of any stretch yet at just under 14 mpg. (On relatively level stretches traveling at 70 mph or less we’ve regularly topped 16 mpg, and occasionally have exceeded 17.) As we left Flagstaff behind, the terrain once again reverted to the type of desert we’ve been seeing for the most part, sparsely populated with scrub brush and cactus. Our day’s destination was the Meteor Crater RV Park, where we booked a spot for two nights ($36 per night with Good Sam discount for full hookup, wi-fi, and shower facilities – probably the best showers we’ve had yet).

On Tuesday we drove about 75 miles to the Petrified Forest National Park, once again being admitted for free with my Senior Pass. Here we found yet another stunning display of Mother Nature’s artwork. We drove through the large park on the main road, stopping for several overlooks and two nice hikes. The first hike was a short, easy walk along the Giant Logs trail, near the Rainbow Forest Visitor Center. Beautiful, stone trees, 2-3 feet in diameter, their former fibrous materials transformed into agates millions of years ago, litter the desert floor. Most have broken into nearly uniform lengths of about 4 feet, giving the impression of having been sawn into stone logs by some giant, prehistoric mason. There are also several longer, unbroken segments, however, including one measuring 35 feet. Our second hike followed the Blue Mesa Trail, a 2-mile round trip down into and around a gorgeous canyon, featuring stunning vistas of blue-tinted sandstone badlands surrounding a floor which sports a number of petrified logs. We also stopped to see Newspaper Rock, which consists of two large boulders featuring hundreds of petroglyphs, and the remnants of an ancestral Puebloan village from about 1380, called Puerco Pueblo. Our brief visit to this amazing National Park was truly fascinating.

20181127_110137

20181127_123110

On the way back to the RV Park, we stopped for dinner in Winslow. Naturally, I had to spend a moment “standing on a corner,” but apparently I was NOT “such a fine sight to see,” as there was no “girl … in a flatbed Ford slowing down to take a look at me”. (Are there any Eagles fans reading this?) Pat and I commiserated over this sad reality with excellent hamburgers at the RelicRoad Brew Pub, where my spirits were once again lifted by a Nitro Polygamy Stout, a specialty of the pub. As a side note, I have never seen as many semitrailer trucks as we encountered while driving on I40 to and from the National Park. The trucks made up at least 90% of the traffic, and the rest stop near Winslow was crammed with 50 or more parked trucks. This busy road used to be the famous Route 66 from Florida to California, and this history was prominently featured in Winslow.

IMG_1762

It got a bit chilly overnight at the RV Park – not that 22 degrees should frighten any true Minnesotan, but we have to be somewhat careful about freezing the water in the RV’s tanks. We also saw that snow was forecast for the area in the coming days, so we decided to hightail it out of there and head west in the morning.

Nov 28-29-(Wednesday, Thursday): Wednesday morning dawned to reveal clear, beautiful, bright blue skies. Before heading for warmer climes, we drove 6 miles to the famous Arizona Meteor Crater. This giant depression was formed about 50,000 years ago by a house-sized meteor that crashed into the desert. An impressive museum has been erected at the site, with extensive displays explaining the crater’s history. After viewing the various exhibits and watching a 20-minute movie, we went outside to see the giant hole and were duly impressed.

20181128_094635

As we drove west again after our crater visit, the wind began to howl, nearly blowing the RV off the highway a few times. Feeling somewhat rattled from the drive, we stopped for a two-hour visit at the Walnut Canyon National Monument just outside Flagstaff. This beautiful, steep-walled canyon was home to hundreds of cliff dwelling Pueblo people some 800 years ago. We took an excellent trail from the Visitor Center down into the canyon, where we enjoyed the spectacular scenery and explored remnants of the ancient village homes. (As with so much of the infrastructure in the National Parks and Monuments, the trail and Visitor Center were very well built by CCC workers in the 1930s.)

20181128_113404

20181128_111511

After vising Walnut Canyon, we headed west again to our revised destination, Bullhead City, AZ. On the way from Flagstaff (6900 ft elevation) we drove through many mountain passes, descending and climbing and descending again, eventually dropping to 540 ft in Bullhead City. This relatively sleepy city lies along the banks of the Colorado River, directly across from Laughlin, NV, home to 8 or 10 hotel casinos and an 1880s style riverboat casino. We checked into the Silver View RV Resort, situated on a hill overlooking the river, and the bright lights of Laughlin were very pretty at night. The RV resort ran us $22 per night complete with full hookups (50% Passport America discount), showers, and a nice on-site deli. It was easy to bike around to the restrooms and the deli, where I enjoyed a Nathan’s hot dog on Thursday before it started raining. We loafed around all day on Thursday, pleased to be getting only rain rather than the snow that fell back in the Winslow area.

Nov 30-Dec 3 (Friday – Monday): On Friday, we took off for the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, about 65 miles NNW from Bullhead City. While sitting around in the rain on Thursday, we had booked three nights at the Lake Mead RV Village ($35 a night with Good Sam discount for full RV hookups, showers, laundry, on-site store, wi-fi, and 40 channels of cable TV). It was a nice enough place, but upon arrival we discovered an NPS campground right next door, with beautiful sites but no power, water, or other amenities, where we could boondock for only $10 a night with my Senior Pass. So, after doing laundry at the RV Village on Saturday, we cancelled out of the third night and moved next door.

20181202_160908

We made very good use of our bikes, as there was a bike trail running along the main entrance road and the campgrounds were located between that road and another paved road. We rode a couple of miles on the bike trail Saturday, all uphill, seemingly both ways, and we had to ride into a near gale force wind, again seemingly both ways. I know that couldn’t really be true, but my aching legs sure felt like it. On Sunday we took the other road and went to the marina/harbor to catch a Lake Mead boat cruise. This involved a very loooong, thrilling downhill coast after riding about a mile parallel to the lakeshore. That part was great fun; unfortunately, we paid for it ten times over coming back up the hill – my legs resembled spaghetti noodles for an hour after we got back. But the cruise was well worth the pain, with stunning views of the lake, the surrounding mountains, and a unique view of the Hoover Dam.

20181202_124229

Dec 4-6 (Tuesday-Thursday): After loafing around at Lake Mead for another day on Monday, we pulled up stakes and headed west again, winding our way up and down through lovely mountain passes, making for a very pleasant 150-mile drive to Death Valley National Park. We stayed for two nights at the Furnace Creek campground ($11 per night with Senior Pass for a flat, paved boondocking site) and another night at the Stovepipe Wells campground ($7 per night with Senior Pass for a flat, gravel site). Death Valley was the biggest surprise of the trip so far. I’d envisioned a flat, sand covered wasteland – after all, the place barely gets 4 inches of rain per year. (Interestingly enough in this arid land, it rained for much of the day on Thursday.) We weren’t prepared for the beauty and the contrasts we actually found there. On the way in, we descended from a 3000 ft mountain pass to the valley itself, at sea level ad below, over a 10-mile stretch. There sat the huge, 130-mile long valley nestled between majestic peaks rising on all sides. During our visit we saw many beautiful and surprising things: the intricately formed badlands at Zabriskie Point; the salty, mineral-rich desert at Badwater Basin (the lowest point in North America at 280 feet below sea level), where hexagonal crystalline patters of salt adorn the floor; the stark contrast offered by the nearby, snow-capped, 11,049-foot Telescope Peak; the beautiful pastel-colored hills along Artist Drive; ruins of the borax mining operations made famous by the 20-mule teams in the 1880s; the sculpted sand dunes at Mesquite Flat – as I said, much more than we imagined. Artist Drive was limited to vehicles no longer than 25 feet due to the sharp, hairpin turns and dramatic dips – that stunning drive alone was probably enough of a reason to justify our purchase of a 24-foot RV.

20181205_101215

20181205_111928

Perhaps most surprising of all, however, was the Oasis at Death Valley, a newly-renovated resort with a nice restaurant, store, plenty of lodging for visitors, and even – A GOLF COURSE! Despite the paltry annual rainfall, the water collects in springs which provide plenty of water to irrigate the grass and the palm trees in the resort area, so it truly lives up to its name. The golf course was only half a mile from our campsite at Furnace Creek, so I walked over with my clubs on Wednesday afternoon and played my lowest round ever – 190 feet below sea level. My score was definitely not my lowest ever as I topped and shanked my irons like the complete duffer I’ve apparently become. (This may be my last round until I get my coveted new irons.) But the course was very pretty, challenging, and it was an all-around fun experience.

20181205_140325

Dec 7 (Friday): Having arrived through the eastern entrance, we left Death Valley on Friday using the western route. The roads we followed were clearly less travelled than the ones we came in on, resembling a strip of tar thrown down fifty years ago and simply forgotten (I’m guessing they don’t need too much maintenance). I felt a little uneasy as we drove for mile after mile through a vast nothingness, the surrounding desert containing nothing but a few dinky, scrubby bushes. For a long time we didn’t even see any power poles, though some of those finally appeared as we neared the mountains on the wets side of the park. We drove for two and a half hours to Mojave, where we stayed the night at the Sierra Trails RV Park ($20 cash only with Passport America discount for full hookups, a nice shower and laundry facility, and achingly slow Wi-Fi).

We’ve now visited five National Parks, two National Monuments, and one National Recreation Area during our adventure so far. Each and every one has been awesome, albeit in different and unique ways. We haven’t had to pay a nickel to get in to any of them, thanks to my Senior Pass, and have received many great discounts as well. Awesome Adventure, indeed!!!

Now we’re ready to swing back east and south for a while. Stop back for an update in a couple of weeks. In my next post, I hope to be ready with a map showing the entire journey, which I will update with each successive post.

Pat and Dave’s Excellent Adventure – PART 4: Urban Detour

We last left off in Benson, AZ, doing laundry and taking showers. After our visits to a multitude of State Parks and National Parks and Monuments, we were ready for a change of pace, moving away from the majestic caverns, canyons, and mountains to spend some time in more urban settings.

Nov 14-15 (Wednesday, Thursday): We drove from Benson to Tucson, AZ, where we had reserved a spot for two nights at the Sentinel Peak RV Resort ($40 per night with Good Sam discount for full hookup and wi-fi, but, oddly, no shower facilities). This place is located just six blocks from a stop on the Sun Link Streetcar, Tucson’s version of a light rail line. After a lunch at nearby Pat’s Chili Dogs, a world famous “drive-in” where I had my first ever chili cheese dog, we walked to the streetcar stop. After purchasing two 24-hour unlimited ride tickets for $4.50 each, we rode to the end of the line, deep within the campus of the University of Arizona.

20181114_1335471

20181115_163053

Once there, I was inspired to get a haircut and beard trim at Cost Cutters, undergoing my regular, periodic transformation from Grizzly Adams to Don Adams with a bad five-o’clock shadow. We then rode the streetcar back to our original stop and walked back to the RV park. Tucson struck me as a rather small “big” city, with a downtown even smaller than St. Paul, but an enormous surrounding metropolis of businesses, residential enclaves, and strip malls. On Thursday, we got out our bikes and rode along a gorgeous bike trail running alongside the Santa Cruz River. (The river looks very nice and blue on a map, but currently was nothing but a dry bed of gravel.) The trail was probably the best maintained bike route I’ve ever been on and featured nice views of the surrounding mountains. Several road runners also skittered across the trail as we rode along to provide entertainment. For dinner, we walked about eight blocks from the RV park, passing the chili dog emporium on the way, to a Mexican seafood place called Mariscos Chihuahua. Pat had a combo plate with three types of fish tacos, and I had something called Camaron Rellenos – shrimp stuffed with cheese and wrapped in bacon. Very tasty fare, accompanied by excellent Margaritas.

20181115_121205

Nov 16-(Friday): We headed toward Phoenix on Friday morning, having reserved a week’s worth of time at a couple of RV resorts starting on Saturday, but before diving completely into the urban/suburban scene we stopped at a nice place called the Picacho Mountain State Park. We didn’t find any Pokemon characters there, but we stayed at a beautiful site with electricity and nice restroom and shower facilities for $30. Alas, we received no discounts. We hiked about 6 miles (round trip) to enjoy a lovely overlook on Picacho mountain in the afternoon.

20181116_112806

20181116_130319

Nov 17-22 (Saturday – Thursday): On Saturday we continued on to Phoenix, where we rented a tiny little car (Toyota Yaris) using credit card points before taking up residence at the Sunflower RV Resort ($39 per night with Passport America discount)  in the suburban city of Surprise. We had hoped to stay there for a week, but it was fully booked starting Thursday – no doubt due to the Thanksgiving holiday – so we had to find another place for the remainder of the week. The Sunflower Resort matched my stereotype of the prototypical urban RV retirement Valhalla – a “55+ community” with more than 1400 sites, where many residents stay for the winter, many stay year-round, and some visit for just a few days or weeks. Most of the sites are permanent mobile homes, and about 10% are RVs. I can understand the attraction of a place like this for a gregarious retired couple; the weather is beautiful and there are enough organized activities to fill the day for even the most active seniors. There are also roughly a billion golf courses within just a few miles. I played golf on Sunday and Wednesday (even seeing a modest improvement in the dreadful iron play). Pat and I played pickleball on Monday, then went to visit her Uncle Harley and Aunt Jeannie at their nearby winter home and help them celebrate their 63rd wedding anniversary (yes, you read that right) at the Texas Roadhouse. On Tuesday we got the RV washed at a carwash with a very large bay area especially for trucks and RVs, then relaxed back at the resort’s Tiki bar with Margaritas, appetizers, and tacos while listening to a live duo (although at one point I thought the guitar player might have died since he didn’t move for an entire song, even though sound continued to emanate from his speaker). Unfortunately, while Pat and I qualify as 55+ and a retired couple, we are not exactly what one would call gregarious. In other words, this lifestyle is not really for us. While it’s nice to relax in a place like this for a week or so, lazily biking around the resort when so motivated, that’s about our limit. Perhaps the most telling fact is that I didn’t take a single picture while we were at the Sunflower Resort.

Nov 22-26 (Thursday – Monday): Having been denied the opportunity to stagnate for a full week at Sunflower, we moved on to the southwesterly, suburban city of Buckeye for the remainder of our planned time in the Phoenix area. We stayed at the Leaf Verde RV Resort ($40 per night with 10% Good Sam discount – the better, 50% Passport America discount is not available from October through March). This place has 377 RV sites, maybe 75% of them occupied, and a few permanent structures for year-round guests. It had far fewer amenities than the last place – for example only two pickleball courts rather than seven and no spa, stained glass or woodworking facilities, etc. But the restroom and shower facilities were very nice, and it didn’t feel nearly as crowded. We kept the car for ease of gadding about to golf courses, restaurants, and the like.

20181125_103552

On Friday I played golf with Harley, his son Curt, and Curt’s 11-year-old son Stas. Harley proposed that we play a scramble format since Curt rarely plays golf and this was Stas’s first time on an actual 18-hole course. After the first nine, on which we used about 90% of my shots, we decided to add a competitive element – I played my own ball against the tri-generational Jergensen team, who still played a scramble format. Wouldn’t you know it, they immediately picked up their game, accompanied by a fair amount of trash talking (mostly from Harley). They won the match and bragging rights by a single hole, the total difference being a putt I left hanging over the edge of the 15th cup. It was great fun for all of us, especially when they used Stas’s drive, Harley’s second, Curt’s third, and two putts to nip me by a stroke on the par-5 13th. On Saturday we played pickleball at the RV resort (Pat won two out of three games) and went out for dinner at a very nice wine bar and pizzeria called Ciao Grazie, where all the staff wore tee-shirts with a slogan on the back: “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drink White Zinfandel.” On Sunday we drove to a nearby place called Skyline Park, with a dozen nicely marked trails winding through the mountains, with lovely vistas, friendly Saguaros raising their arms in greeting, and Teddy Bear Cholla looking as cute as, well teddy bears. We chose the 3-mile turnbuckle loop, encountering several other hikers, a couple of bikers, and even a foursome on horseback as we went.

20181125_152215

On Monday morning we packed up camp, drove the car back to rental office in Phoenix, and headed north for our next stop. Where will it be? You’ll find out in a week or two …

Pat and Dave’s Excellent Adventure – PART 3: Beautiful Borderlands

Our last installment took us as far as Presidio, TX, on November 6. Read on to learn about our next several steps.

Nov 7-8 (Wednesday, Thursday): We drove to Big Bend National Park near Cottonwood, TX. The drive from Presidio was described by our RV campground host as “the prettiest road in the US,” and she may very well have been right. We were awestruck by the breathtaking views along the narrow, winding, roller-coaster road as it followed the Rio Grande River, although Pat seemed to have turned a pale shade of green by the time we arrived at Big Bend. While her discomfort was due to motion sickness and trepidation over the steep drops next to the road, we were both more sickened by the thought of despoiling the beauty with a giant wall erected to salve the irrational fears of the anti-immigrant crowd. Perhaps if more people would come to look at this place, to gaze out across the river at the nonexistent hordes of imaginary invaders … but I digress.

20181107_094934

After our free entry into the park (with my National Parks Senior Card), we drove to the Chisos Basin Campground, located as implied in a large basin amidst the Chisos Mountains. By the time we had navigated the road into the campground with its multiple switchbacks, hairpin curves, and severe grades – first up and then down – Pat’s color had morphed into a frightening puce. But she immediately perked up when we found a vacant campsite – probably the most dramatic one we’ve had so far.

20181107_133339

We paid a whopping $7 per night with my Senior Pass discount. There was no electricity, water, or sewer, so we were again dry camping / boondocking. The site was very uneven, and we couldn’t level out the camper with our existing stock of leveling blocks, so I felt a bit like a drunken sailor as I walked back and forth inside. It was also a grueling half-mile, uphill hike from the campground to the Visitor Center area, which included a store, a restaurant, and several lodges for non-camping guests. But none of that mattered as we hiked the scenic trails, covering about ten miles over the two days, or sat quietly in our lawn chairs drinking in the scenery. We had one nice lunch at the restaurant but prepared the rest of our meals in the RV. It was near freezing at night, but the daytime temperatures were very comfortable.

20181107_142314

20181108_095115

Nov 9-(Friday): We awoke to find the Chisos Basin campground shrouded in fog; temperature in the upper30s and a chill wind required our jackets when we were outside. We had intended to drive to the southeast corner of the park for scenic views of the Rio Grande, but after navigating the campground road in the fog, creeping along at a snail’s pace, barely able to see anything, we decided to just head off to our next destination. The fog persisted for a couple of hours as we wended our way toward El Paso, TX, and both of us were nervous wrecks from the tough driving conditions by the time the fog finally lifted. After some five hours of driving, we decided to stop at an RV Park in Van Horn, TX, where we payed $14 for a site with full hookups (with a Passport America discount). This place even had cable TV and, having procured a cable at Walmart a couple of days previously, we enjoyed a bit of junk TV. We took showers in their excellent facilities and were ready to go again in the morning.

Nov 10-11 (Saturday, Sunday): On Saturday we covered 370 miles from Van Horn to Willcox, AZ. The El Paso metro area freeway was jammed, requiring a relatively slow pace of 50 – 55 mph, but the rest of the trip was free sailing, with little traffic other than innumerable semi-trucks carrying America’s goods to market. The freeway spanned seemingly endless miles of flat desert areas, surrounded on all sides by distant mountains. Every so often we would actually reach the mountains ahead, at which points the road would wind up and down through a mountain pass and emerge once more into the desert, with mountains again far off in the distance. The drive was very easy, but I was impressed by the incredible vastness of the southwestern landscape. We stopped at another RV Park with full hookups, wi-fi, and cable TV, though the Passport America rate was not as good at $23 per night. So why did we stay two nights? There was a golf course only two miles away, so naturally I had to play on Sunday. I’ll say only two things about the golf: 1) it was a good deal at $17 for 18 holes with a rented pull cart, and 2) I really need those new irons.

Nov 12 (Monday): We drove about 40 miles to the Chiricahua National Monument, named for the Chiricahua Apache tribe who occupied the area from the 1500s until being driven out by white American settlers and the US Army in the 1880s after some 50 years of warfare. The area was named a National Monument in 1923, to protect the unique and beautiful rock formations. RVs larger than 29 feet are not allowed due to the narrow, winding roads, but we easily navigated our 25-foot Unity into the Bonita Canyon Campground, where we had actually reserved a spot for a change. It cost $10 for a gorgeous site with no hookups.

20181112_105513

We took a nice, 4-mile hike through the Riparian zone of the park past some historic structures collectively known as Faraway Ranch – since it was so far away from any place else – which in addition to being a working cattle ranch provided lodging for park visitors from 1917 to 1973. Interestingly, the place was founded by Swedish immigrants after the Native people had been driven away to reservations in Florida and Oklahoma.

20181112_123040

Nov 13 (Tuesday): We drove the RV from our beautiful campsite to the Visitor Center and parked there so we could take the free hikers’ shuttle to the trailheads near the top of the mountain, along with three other hikers. The narrow, winding, 6.5-mile-long road with a vertical climb from 5400 ft elevation at the Visitor Center to 6780 ft at the trailhead might have been a challenge in the RV. We then spent about two and a half hours descending along the Echo Canyon, Upper Rhyolite Canyon, and Lower Rhyolite Canyon trails, a total distance of 4.2 miles. The hike began with spectacular vistas highlighted by the fantastical rock formations that have been carved out f the rhyolite rock originally laid down millions of years ago as volcanic ash. It was about 35-40 degrees, with a severe wind, so we needed to wear stocking caps and gloves to keep from freezing, but we hardly noticed because the sights were so incredibly beautiful. Gradually, the trail habitat morphed from the Mountain Zone back to the Riparian Zone, showcasing the incredible diversity of flora and fauna this gem of a park has to offer, and the temperature rose to a more comfortable mid-50s.

20181113_110056

20181113_100439

20181113_101011

After the hike, we headed off to the west again, stopping for the day at an RV park in Benson, AZ, which had excellent and much needed laundry and shower facilities along with full hookups for the RV (all for a rate of $25 per night with our Passport America discount).

The next phase of our trip will take us to some slightly different environs than the beautiful borderlands – check back in a week or so for the next update …

Pat and Dave’s Excellent Adventure – PART 2: Canyons and Caverns

We last left off on October 29, in Woodward, OK. What excitements did we encounter during our second week? Read on to find out.

Oct 31 – Nov 1 (Wednesday, Thursday): Drove to Palo Duro Canyon State Park near Canyon, TX. The canyon is known as the “Grand Canyon of Texas,” the second largest canyon in the US. The state park was fantastic – we descended 600 ft along a narrow, winding road to our campground and found ourselves for the first time completely isolated from the security blanket known as the Internet. (Amazing – there are places where a smart phone can not get a signal!) We had no problem finding a space without a reservation, though rumor has it they fill up completely on weekends this time of year. This was the most expensive park fee yet at $34 per night, but it was definitely worth it. All around us were spectacular canyon views accessible by miles and miles of hiking trails. We were also visited by a road runner and a group of wild turkeys during our stay. We arrived late in the afternoon on Wednesday so didn’t go on any long hikes, just wandered about getting the lay of the land. On Thursday we hiked about 6 miles on easy trails, while on Friday we hiked 5 miles on a more difficult trail to get an overlook of a feature known as The Lighthouse before heading off for parts west.

20181101_100200  20181101_171140

20181102_104240

Nov 2-3 (Friday, Saturday): Drove to an RV Park in Artesia, NM. Our lucky streak of finding places to stay without reservations almost ended when we were told the place was full, but the person in the office clicked away at her computer for a while and discovered that one reserved guest had delayed his arrival by a few days, so we got the only vacant spot. We paid $41 per night for the privilege, with my $2 per night senior discount, including electric, water, and sewer hookups, laundry, restroom and shower facilities, wireless, and cable TV service (although we did not at that time have an actual cable to hook up to the RV to WATCH cable TV). There wasn’t much of interest in Artesia, but we needed a place to do laundry, rest up from the hiking at Palo Duro and the long drive, and prepare for our next, more exciting location. We did have a nice walk around the town on Thursday, lunch at a local brew pub, including a Crude Oil Stout, and a lovely evening sky just before sunset.

20181103_181110

Nov 4-5 (Sunday, Monday): This part of the trip included a bucket-list highlight for me – my first ever trip to Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. I developed an interest in caves as a small boy, perhaps when visiting Wind Cave in South Dakota on a family vacation as a 4-year old. Later, I did some research on Mammoth Caves for a 4th grade school report on Kentucky. My first adult cave visit was to a rather disappointing Crystal Cave in Wisconsin. Subsequent cave visits have included Mystery Cave State Park in Forestville, MN, Oregon Caves State Park, and the aforementioned Mammoth Cave (with Pat, Nick, and Brian in 2004) all of which I enjoyed very much. But I always knew that Carlsbad Caverns would be the best, if I ever got there. And it was. THE. BEST. EVER.

We arrived Sunday around 11 AM, arranged free entry with my lifetime Senior National Parks Pass, and purchased tickets for two guided tours on Monday. My tour tickets were half-price ($7.50 for the two tours) because of the Senior Pass. That lifetime pass has to be the best deal I’ve ever gotten in my life – when I bought it six years ago it only cost ten bucks! After arranging for the Monday tours, we embarked on two self-guided tours accompanied by a nifty audio guide we rented for $5. The first self-guided tour was a 1.5-mile walk into the cave via the natural entrance, eschewing the elevator to the bottom. The walk follows a lighted, paved path with handrails, so it’s relatively easy, though there are some segments that are quite steep and others that are rough and uneven. At any rate, it certainly felt like a 1.5-mile hike, even though it was made as easy as possible for the multitude of visitors. There are many switchbacks and passages through dark, narrow spaces or arches, and with each turn or emergence from a dark area we were rewarded with another breathtaking view. Immense open rooms contained stalactites, stalagmites, columns, draperies, and boulders, many decorated with popcorn formations or delicate etchings. The second tour was the “Big Room” route, a 1.25-mile circuit around the perimeter of the cave’s largest open room. That was a bit of an understatement – I’d call it the ENORMOUS Room. This also followed a paved path, and the most impressive features were artfully lighted. Along the route, we passed the “Bottomless Pit,” its actual depth of 140 feet proving that the original explorers were also capable of overstatement.

Monday’s first guided tour was the King’s Palace tour, passing through four highly decorated chambers. This tour also followed a well-lit, paved path but was only accessible with a guide. We spent about two hours with a group of thirty or so as our guide explained the history of the Cavern and pointed out interesting features. Finally, the Left-Hand Tunnel tour included only nine guests and the guide, as we made our way along a much rougher, unpaved path using only hand-held candle lanterns for visibility. This tour provided a taste of the conditions experienced by the cavern’s original explorers. The guided tours each included a few minutes of total darkness, a time to drink in the silence, broken only by echoes of slowly dripping water, and think about on the amazing place we were visiting.

20181104_114305

20181104_130446

20181104_140853

20181104_135100  20181105_131945

These photos do not do justice to the beauty of Carlsbad Caverns. The various formations were reminiscent of the Gothic Cathedrals we visited in Europe, though sculpted by Mother Nature rather than man and perhaps celebrating mythical creatures of the universe rather than the mythical saints revered by Renaissance sculptors. I was profoundly moved by the natural beauty and by the sheer immensity of it all. At one point while admiring a highly decorated formation I whispered to Pat, “That one looks like Mother Nature’s tinnavala!” (Finnlanders will understand …)

Just a brief word about our lodgings: We stayed Sunday and Monday nights at an RV Park in Whites City, a cheesy little tourist town located just outside the gate to the National Park. There is no overnight camping in the park, so that was the closest possible place for us to stay. Again, we didn’t have a reservation but were able to secure two nights for $44 per night, including electricity, water, restroom and shower facilities, and wireless service. Nothing to write home about, but it was close to the Cavern.

20181104_174946

Nov 6 (Tuesday): We made a brief stop at Guadalupe Mountains National Park near Salt Flats, TX, on Tuesday morning since it is so close to Carlsbad, although the strong winds nearly blew the RV off the road as we approached. The park is unique in that it includes three distinct life zones known as the Desert Zone, the Riparian Zone, and the Mountain Zone. We walked a mile or so along a trail into a canyon near the Visitor Center before driving off again into the hurricane and catching a view of the famous peak, El Capitan. Luckily, the wind died down as we made our way toward Presidio, TX.

20181106_111211  20181106_115205

In Presidio, we planned to stay a couple of days at the Loma Paloma RV Park and Golf Resort so I could play golf. Unfortunately, we discovered that the golf course had been ruined in a flood nearly a decade ago. Supposedly they are “remodeling” the course, but it didn’t look like it to me. Such is life.

20181106_164238

We did get a site with electric, water, and sewer hookups and wireless service for $15 with a Passport America discount. We spent the evening watching election returns before heading off in the morning to visit our third National Park in as many days.

Check back for updates as we continue to explore warmer regions of the USA …

Pat and Dave’s Excellent Adventure – PART 1

On October 22, 2018, we departed from our cozy cabin home in Grand Marais, MN, for a 6-month tour in our RV (a 24-Foot Unity model by Leisure Travel Vans of Winkler, Manitoba, Canada). We’ve been talking about and looking forward to this new adventure since we got the RV back in April. We were going to do all sorts of research and lay out an itinerary for the trip. However, neither of us is very good at detail planning, and before we knew it, it was time to go. So we left, without making a single lodging reservation and with only a general notion of what we might actually do, leaving our youngest son, Brian, in charge of the homestead while we’re gone.

While I might be lousy at planning, I am certainly capable of documenting things after the fact. Therefore, I’ll be posting a series of articles with brief thumbnail sketches of where we’ve been and perhaps a few pithy observations about the joys and pitfalls of this nomadic existence. Here goes my first effort.

Oct 22 (Monday): Drove to the Twin Cities, specifically Brooklyn Park, MN for brief visits with my oldest son, Matt, his wife Shaina, and our middle son, Nick. We stayed overnight in Nick’s back yard just off the alley – in RVer’s parlance we were “dry camping,” or “boondocking,” with no electricity, water, or sewer hookups.

Oct 23-24 (Tuesday, Wednesday): Drove to Pine Lake State Park in Eldora, IA, just far enough south to find a State Park campground that was still open for the season. It was a lovely little spot next to a lake, the vibrant fall colors enhanced by a bright blue sky. We shared the park with about ten other campers scattered about the hundred-plus sites. There were no operating personnel in attendance – registration and payment of the super-cheap fee was self-service only ($22 for two nights per the Senior Citizen rate for an electric RV site). The biggest surprise of all was a 9-hole golf course just a short walk from the park; naturally, I walked over and played eighteen holes on Wednesday.

20181024_132305  20181024_111952

Oct 25-26 (Thursday, Friday): Drove to Watkins Woolen Mill State Park in Lawson, MO, located adjacent to a historic woolen mill first established in the late 1860s. This place had attendants who drove around in little carts to greet campers and collect fees. We were lucky to find one electric RV site available for two nights – the campground was essentially full by Friday evening. Again, the fee was quite reasonable ($28 for an electric RV site for the two nights). This senior citizen discount thing is pretty cool! The bathroom and shower facilities were outstanding compared with the more spartan Iowa version. On Friday we went to visit the old woolen mill site which was very interesting and educational.

20181027_093925  20181026_121706

Oct 27-28 (Saturday, Sunday): Drove to Eisenhower State Park in Osage County, KS. This place had hundreds of campsites located on five or six different loops on or near a large body of water called Lake Malvern. We had the option of registering with a ranger at the office or using the self-service method. We chose the latter, because they required a Social Security Number to establish an account in the office. While the ostensible reason given was to prevent use of the facilities by people who are delinquent on child support payments, I suspected a more nefarious purpose based on my opinion of the anti-immigrant views of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. At any rate, the park was excellent, and the fee was again very reasonable ($29.50 for an RV site on the “prime” lakeside Blackjack Loop, with both electricity and water supply – discounted for late season and, you guessed it – senior citizen rate). I missed the best picture opportunity – cloudless, bright blue sky as sunlight reflected off the white feathers of a flock of birds fluttering in front of a full, shadowy moon on Sunday morning. We spent a couple of hours biking around the park on Sunday after driving to town to get groceries – and succumbing to the lure of corn dogs at a Sonic drive in, our first meal so far not prepared in the RV. The Blackjack Loop was about two-thirds full when we arrived on Saturday, but when we departed on Monday, we were the only campers left.

20181028_164753

Oct 29-30 (Monday, Tuesday): Drove to Boiling Springs State Park in Woodward, OK. This was our longest driving day so far, roughly 5.5 hours including stops. We had our first experience with something called Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF), a consumable fluid that minimizes pollution from a diesel-powered vehicle. A warning message appeared on the dashboard stating that the DEF level had fallen to 2.5 gallons. Pat read the operator’s manual as I drove, learning that once the DEF level falls to 0.8 gallons it is only possible to start the RV 12 times. After first unsuccessfully attempting to add DEF from a pump at a truck stop (during which process I splattered DEF on various engine parts and also warped the strut that holds the hood open), we went to an auto parts store and bought a 2.5-gallon container of the stuff. Once we arrived at our RV site, I poured in the DEF and cleaned up the mess I made at the truck stop. Now we’re all set, and we will be adding another 2.5 gallons once we’ve driven 4000 more miles.

The State Park was very nice, though slightly more expensive at $40 for an RV site with water and electricity for two nights. I guess the Oklahoma senior citizen discount is a bit skimpier than the other states, or they haven’t yet enacted off-season rates (although there are more deer than people here at the campground), and/or they are attempting to raise more revenue from campers. All was forgiven, however, since there is a nice, 18-hole golf course adjacent to the park. I played 36 holes on Tuesday while Pat enjoyed hiking the nature trails. I managed to hit some excellent wood and hybrid shots but was frustrated by generally lousy iron play. At some point during this adventure, I will obtain a new set of irons to remedy this problem.

20181030_104731

Stay tuned as the adventure continues …

Minnesota’s Treasured State Parks

Minnesota has a total of 67 State Parks and Recreation Areas, ranging alphabetically from Afton to Zippel Bay. Way back when we were young whippersnappers, Pat and I decided it would be fun to try to camp at (or at least visit) every one of them over the coming decades. Now that we’re both sexagenarians, accomplishing that goal seems very unlikely. But we did add two more new ones to the list and revisited another during the month of September in the course a trip that took us to Winkler, Manitoba, Canada, and back. That brought our totals up to 24 total State Parks visited, including 13 where we have camped.

The first State Park on the trip was Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park, which we have visited in the past. The highlight of our visit was a tour of the retired underground iron mine, first established in 1884. We started by travelling a half mile underground in a cage lowered by a cable that unwrapped from a large drum driven by a 1920s-vintage motor. We then rode on an old ore train along one of the many branches to see where and how the ore was mined. Learning about the hard lives led by the old miners was fascinating, and the displays were interesting and informative. When our guide turned out the lights, it was so dark I literally could not see my hand in front of my face.

20170922_105852

In its time, the mine was a critical source of iron for steel making, helping to build the railroads and supply the military through two world wars. It was shut down when its technology became outdated. There’s plenty of iron ore left, but it would be too costly to mine it any more. (Here’s a hint for the old coal miners waiting for their jobs to come back — the same thing is happening to your industry. Wake up and smell the coffee — or the coal dust.)

Our next park stop was Lake Bemidji. This was a new one for us, and we were very pleased with our campsite. Unfortunately, it rained all night and we awoke to the prospect of another rainy night. So we wimped out and traded the tent for a nice little Camper Cabin, in which we stayed cozy and dry the second night.

20170922_162109  20170923_182224

 

 

 

The park had miles and miles of well-maintained hiking and biking trails through the woods and along the shore of Lake Bemidji. We especially enjoyed the bog trail.

20170923_101658

On our return from Winkler, we were slotted to camp again at Zippel Bay, another new one for us, located alongside an inlet of Rainy Lake with a lovely sand beach. Unfortunately, it was still raining and getting colder by the hour, so we blew it off in favor of a motel in Baudette. We did at least stop and look at the park — it was very beautiful and had three large campgrounds with spacious sites nestled in the woods.

20170925_184646

When we got back home, we had to admit that our tent camping days are most likely over. Which brings me to the reason for traveling to Winkler in the first place. Next spring, we will be the proud owners of a 24-foot RV from Leisure Travel Vans, located in (you guessed it) Winkler, MB. We went up there to tour the factory and confirmed that our selected model is a very high quality unit suitable for traveling about and camping at many more of our beautiful State Parks during the months they remain open. With the new vehicle, we can laugh at the rain and cold and just enjoy the parks. Hopefully there will be many more yet to visit, even if we don’t make it to each and every one.

We also plan to spend time in the winter months traveling to many of the fabulous National Parks. I’ll probably do a blog post about that in late 2018.

Adventure awaits.

A Tale of Three Wells

Living here above the shores of Lake Superior is truly wonderful. I get to look at the lake every day and live like the natural hermit I am (most of the time anyway), yet the wonderful town of Grand Marais is only a few minutes away by car (or 20 minutes by bike, or an hour walking if it comes to that), providing a convenient place to shop for necessities and get an occasional jolt from contact with other humans. Not to mention being close to a couple of nice golf courses, without which the place would be simply uninhabitable.

However, there is one interesting challenge associated with living outside of an actual city. Out here, one can’t just connect up to a city water system — one has to have a well to obtain water. Hermit though I may be, I can not live without running water.

Way back when we were planning to build our cabin, my father had a plan. We would build a long cable down to the shore, supported by pulleys, to which we could attach buckets. We would go down to the lake every day and fill said buckets with water, then crank them up to the cabin and store said water in a cistern. We would have an outhouse for our daily “excretionary” needs. I promptly vetoed that plan. He was a real hermit. I am only a fake hermit.

But, I digress.

At any rate, we had the local well driller out to drill a well for us. He used a divining rod to locate a likely spot, then set about drilling. Lo and behold, after only a few hours, he struck into a great source of water only 45 feet below the surface, in a sort of gravelly soil. That well has served us faithfully and faultlessly for thirty years now, with good, clean water.

Not long after our well was drilled, our neighbor, who shall remain nameless to protect the innocent, engaged the same driller for a well on her property. This time not bothering with a divining rod, he selected a site only about 25 yards away from our well and began drilling. Down and down went the drill, for several days, through gravel and rock and mud and more rock, until finally finding a dribble of water at about 320 feet. Over the next several years, the neighbor tried and tried to get more water to flow, finally resorting to hydraulic fracking. She did get more water, but it was often muddy, so she had to install a complex filtering system.

The neighbor sold her place a couple of years ago to some wonderful folks who shall also remain nameless, except to mention that they are my wife’s sister and her husband. Being on friendly terms, we were happy to accommodate them when they showed up with plastic jugs in hand, asking to collect a supply of our water for drinking and cooking. That has continued to happen whenever they come to stay at their cabin.

They finally grew tired of borrowing water and decided to have a new well put in. Out came the local driller again, now accompanied by his grown sons who are continuing the business into a second generation. Out came the diving rod again, presumably to make up for the previous error of their ways, and a third well locationwas selected, this time only about 15 yards from our successful site.

20170818_104510

Hoping to find a good water source near the 45 foot level, they were disappointed when only a dribble of silty stuff appeared. So, they needed to go deeper. And deeper. And deeper. A couple of insufficient or silt-filled water spurts were encountered along the way, until finally they hit a gusher at 440 feet. As of yet, this new well has not been connected up to the cabin, but it certainly appears to be steady and clean. The neighboring property should soon, at long last, have a suitable water supply.

I find this all quite fascinating. In an area that could easily be covered by a large tent, three wells were drilled by the same company. One has great water at 45 feet, one has crummy water at 320 feet, and the most recent required 440 feet to get good water. This surely speaks to the complexity of the geology in our region, as well as the futility of the divining rod.

ADDENDUM: In an interesting twist, it turned out that drilling the new well caused the crummy old well to start flowing very clean water at a very high rate. So, the neighbors didn’t even need to hook up to the new well — it’s mere existence solved their water problem. Apparently the new well passed through or created an underground channel communicating with the old one. So the new well was capped and now stands as a silent reminder that drilling for water along the North Shore of Lake Superior is a mysterious art.

Grand Marais Author News Redux

A while ago, I posted a self-congratulatory piece about my books, explaining that they are now available for sale at a local bookstore here in Grand Marais. In that piece, I described a writer’s salon I had attended featuring Lorna Landvik. Ms. Landvik is not only an outstanding Minnesota author, but also a very entertaining speaker. In her remarks, she mentioned one of the things her mother had ingrained in her: “You don’t toot your own horn!” Getting past that well-meaning but not terribly helpful advice was one of Lorna’s struggles on the way to becoming a best selling author. Eventually, she decided that an appropriate response to that advice was something like this: “Well, what do you think a horn is for, ma?” Perhaps another one might be: “If I don’t toot it, who will?”

So, here I am, about to toot my own horn — yet AGAIN. It doesn’t feel right, but I’m doing it anyway.

Last night, I attended the monthly meeting of a local group known as the Grand Marais Writers Guild. This very supportive group holds meetings in a relaxed and informal setting at the Grand Marais Public Library. While there, I learned that my books have now been added to the Library catalog. How cool is that?

20170817_175818

The photo above only shows one of the books since I didn’t see the other two, but here’s a screen snap from the on-line catalog showing that they truly are carrying all three books.

Library Catalog

So now, if you really want to read these books but can’t stomach the $2.99 each price for the Kindle editions or the $13.50 to $15.00 price for a print edition, you can travel to Grand Marais and read them FOR FREE!

(RELATED SPECIAL ALERT: All three books will be on sale as a Kindle Countdown Deal, starting at $0.99 each, from September 2 to 9 in the Kindle Store. They’re also free all the time for Kindle Unlimited members.)

When I got home from the meeting, I was thankful that I hadn’t worn my golf cap — my head was so swollen I may not have been able to get it off. What an emerging success story! All-time sales of my books have now exceeded two hundred (no, not two hundred thousand — let’s try to stay in the real world), they’re selling in a real bookstore, and now they’re IN THE LIBRARY!

Toot, toot!

Hoito House RULES!!

I just returned from our annual August visit to Thunder Bay, a venerable, sprawling city located in Ontario, Canada, along the north shore of Lake Superior. I say annual because various family members and I have been making a trip there sometime in August nearly every year for the past several decades. (Disclaimer: This was actually our fourth or fifth trip to Thunder Bay this year – since we now live so close, it’s no longer that big a deal to go.) There are many things we enjoy doing in Thunder Bay and surrounds: go to the great shops in the Bay and Algoma district (Finnport, Scandinavian Delicatessen, Finnish Bookstore, Cheese Encounter), explore the Marina Park, sweat away stress at the Kangas Sauna, ooh and aah at the Kakabeka Falls, immerse ourselves in history at Old Fort William, visit the amethyst mines, even an occasional round of golf. We usually do at least one of those things each time we visit.

But one thing reigns supreme and simply MUST happen every single time – we eat lunch at the Hoito Restaurant.

20170803_141532

A sign at the corner of Bay Street and Algoma Street proclaims that the designated Bay and Algoma Historical District is the home of the “World Famous” Hoito Restaurant. The restaurant was founded in 1918 at the site of the Finnish Labour Temple, itself established in 1910. According to the Hoito web site, “The idea for the restaurant came about in a logging camp outside of Nipigon. Finnish bush workers at Kallio’s camp were concerned that, while they could find cheap lodging in Thunder Bay, they couldn’t find reasonably priced home-cooked meals. The request to open a co-operative restaurant was taken to the Board of Directors of the Finnish Labour Temple and was approved. Fifty-nine people pooled their money into $5.00 ‘Comrade loans’ and hired union organizer A.T. Hill as the restaurant’s first manager.” (My, my – those old Finns almost sound like Communists, eh?)

My parents always referred to the place as the Hoito House, though that’s not the official name. The restaurant is almost entirely lacking in ambience, but the food is authentic Finnish fare that always transports me back to my youth, sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table. Here are the delectable eats we savored today.

20170803_134845

Karjalan Piirakka (Karelian pie) – rice enclosed in a sort of pocket crust made from rye flour.

20170803_134837

Suolakala voileipä (saltfish sandwich) –  salted cured salmon sandwich, served open faced on rye bread.

20170803_134851

Hernekeitto (pea soup) – pea soup with ham.

20170803_140318

Ice cream with salmiakki – a salted licorice concoction that most non- Finns or non-Scandinavians probably consider just plain weird.

Former Italian Prime minister Silvio Berlusconi once proclaimed Finnish food to be the most boring and the blandest in the entire world. He may be right, but to me it tastes like manna from heaven. And I don’t even need any Tums after eating.

Today, I salute the Hoito House – maybe the best place on earth for a good, cheap meal.