Sunday, June 11, 2017

Teresa Shirlen Freed

My wonderful wife, Teresa, was a teacher at Mount Hebron High School, in Ellicott City, MD, through the 2002 school year, starting her teaching career upon graduating from the University of Maryland in College Park, MD, in 1994.  She made a lot of friends and impacted hundreds of students over the years, just as she was impacted by them.  She loved teaching, she love her students, and she loved the literature she helped the students experience as the 9th grade English teacher of gifted and talented (GT) freshman.  She also taught a public speaking elective, and sponsored the speech and debate team.

She was a tough teacher, but, as the school year progressed, the students appreciated her style and passion for the books, novels, and Shakespearean plays she taught, realizing how much she cared. Her absolute favorite book was "To Kill A Mockingbird," by Harper Lee.  Teresa also got to know her students.  She wanted to create a bond with them in order to understand them, and creating an environment of trust within the classroom allowed them to be comfortable enough to share the best of themselves as they learned the rich curriculum she taught.

Many of her students were involved with the youth program at Grace Community Church.  In fact, Teresa told me that she knew which students were in the program because of the way they behaved and carried themselves, and she even got to know the church's pastor and his wife, Mark and Lu Norman, because their children were students at Hebron, and she taught several of them.  Mark has said that it gave them comfort to know there was a Christ-follower teaching their kids.  At one point, her students who attended Grace attempted to play match-maker by setting her up with the, at that time, single youth pastor.  But she never followed through with their requests to meet him.

I met Teresa on April 4, 1998, after being introduced to her by my cousin, Dan, who attended Montrose Baptist Church, the same church as Teresa and her family.  We soon were dating regularly, and our relationship progressed quickly.  The Class of '02 was witness to Teresa's stories of our dating escapades, as she shared with them the details of our storybook romance.  We were engaged on February 13, 1999, to much hoopla from the kids in the classroom.  I was not aware of just how much she shared with the students, and am amused to find out what they knew about me.  We were married on July 24, 1999, in a wonderful, Christ-centered wedding in front of over 200 of our family and friends.  It was one of the greatest days of my life.

The students continued to be regaled by Teresa telling stories about our life together, including when we added to our family with our Maltese pup, who Teresa named "Scout," after the little girl in "To Kill A Mockingbird," naturally.  We moved to Howard County in August 2001, since we wanted to be closer to her place of employment, but also because we wanted our children to attend Howard County Schools, which, in our minds, are the finest in the country.

It was also at this time that the long-time principal at Mt. Hebron, Dr. Addie Kaufman, left the school to open brand-new Reservoir High School, in Fulton, MD, just down the street from our new home.  Addie quickly talked Teresa into coming to Reservoir, making her one of the first hires of the new school, due to open in the Fall of 2002.  While she had only ever taught at one school, and she hated to leave Hebron, she was excited by the opportunity to open a new school, especially since it was so close to where we lived.  It was kept a secret for some time, but there was quite an outpouring of disappointment among the Hebron community that she was leaving.  She finished up the school year in June 2002, and made the transition to Reservoir.

Fast forward to the Spring of 2003 and we found out that we were expecting.  Teresa and I were excited and intimidated by the prospect of being parents.  There's nothing to prepare you for it.  But while we stayed excited, the reality of it all kept us grounded and we prepared for this incredible change to our lives.

At around this time, we began looking for a new church home.  We wanted a church that was closer to our community, and after trying several different churches, Teresa recalled Grace Community Church.  We visited in the Summer of 2003 and knew immediately that this was the church for us.  Mark Norman's messages spoke to us, and while we already knew about the youth program, we quickly learned that the children's program was also pretty awesome.

Melody Grace was born in the Fall of 2003, several months into the new school year.  And she did change our lives.  She was so beautiful!  And Teresa loved being a mom!  Our little family now complete, we moved into a new phase of life.  We also had some decisions to make.  After much conversation and prayer, we decided that Teresa would take off for the rest of the school year.  This allowed for Teresa to spend every day with Melody, and we didn't have to consider finding daycare, at least not yet.

April 19, 2004, was a beautiful day.  We grilled burgers and corn on the cob, and had a nice dinner, then we decided to go out for a ride.  It was too nice to stay home and inside.  We drove out to Clarksville with little 5 month old Melody and Faithful Pup Scout, and got some ice cream.  Then we drove up to Reservoir High School to see if maybe there was a game being played that we could watch.  Teresa saw that Addie Kaufman's car was in the parking lot, and we decided to go over to the window of her office.  I was carrying Melody, and Teresa had Scout on her leash.  I stayed out on the sidewalk, while Teresa knocked on Addie's window.  Then she suddenly collapsed on the ground.  I had no idea what happened, and ran over to her. I watched her eyes glaze over and close, and her lips fluttered as the air expelled from her mouth.  I knew something was terribly wrong.

Addie opened the window and I asked her to call 911.  She did, and she also made an announcement for anyone who knew CPR to please come to the front of the school  While we had taken an infant CPR class, I wasn't able to process what to do, so I was relieved to see a woman show up who did (she turned out to be a registered nurse).  Addie came out and took Melody, who was crying loudly, so I could devote my attention to Teresa.

The paramedics soon arrived and they took over.  The police questioned me well away from Teresa.  It took the longest time, but they finally loaded Teresa onto an ambulance.  I wanted to ride with them, but they wouldn't let me, and instead I was led to a police car for the ride to Howard County General Hospital.  I didn't know it at the time, but because I was the only witness to what happened, I was being considered a suspect.  Addie said she would take care of Melody, and one of the school custodians took care of Scout.  Then we headed for the hospital.

I called Teresa's parents, Jim and Lynda, but couldn't reach them.  I called my parents, and couldn't reach them, either.  They finally called me back and I told them what happened.  The Shirlens called back and I told them what happened.  Everyone was en route to the hospital, but I knew it would be 30 minutes for them to get there.  I asked the police officer if he was a Christian.  He said he was Catholic.  I asked him to please pray.

Once at the hospital, I started to rush towards the ambulance bay, but the police officer led me instead into the main Emergency entrance, where I had to wait until cleared to go into the ER.  But instead of being allowed to be near her, I was led to a little room with a small table and several chairs.  There was a Bible on the table.  I thought to myself that this was a room where they give you bad news.

I prayed.  It was all I could think to do.  I asked God to please bless Teresa, to be with me, to be with little Melody...  I still believed that she would be okay.  I didn't want to think of the alternative.  It seemed like a long time, but, finally, a man with a lab coat came in, along with a well-dressed woman carrying a clipboard.  They joined me at the table and told me that they did everything they could, but there was nothing that could be done.  Teresa had died.  I was devastated.  It was just a nightmare.  (Days later, we got the coroner's report saying that Teresa died of a massive heart attack.  She had Mitral Valve Prolapse complicated by an enlarged heart.  She was gone by the time she hit the ground after collapsing.)

Later that week, at the funeral home, we were met by so many current and former students from both Mount Hebron and Reservoir High Schools.  It was an incredible turn out.  And they told so many stories about their teacher.  There was so much sadness over the whole thing, but we found comfort in sharing those stories.  It was about the best thing for me, given the circumstances.

In the days to follow, I fell into a deep depression.  I'm so thankful for so many who helped us through that terrible time, from my parents and in-laws, so many friends, Pastor Mark and Grace Community, Reverend George Aist, my colleagues at work, teachers and staff at both schools...there was no shortage of prayers and support.

And then there were the students.  I was told that both schools wanted to start scholarships in Teresa's name.  In addition, Reservoir collected money for a college fund for Melody.  Such wonderful gestures, I was and still am amazed by the generosity of so many people impacted by our loss.  Mount Hebron had an essay contest in order to give out a one-time scholarship award to a Class of 2005 student, from the last class Teresa taught at Hebron.  Reservoir had a self-sustaining annual scholarship in Teresa's name, and allowed the family and several students and staff to establish the criteria for the award.  In addition, a memorial garden was set up in the front of the school, with a plaque on the outside wall of the school with names of community members who have passed on.  Teresa's name is the first one listed.  And to this day, the garden is a wonderful sanctuary to her memory.

Fast forward again to several weeks ago.  Daughter Melody, now 13 years old, is involved in that same youth program at Grace Community Church that had impressed us all those years ago.  Melody listened to one of the youth counselors, Greg Murach, share that he was a teacher at Mount Hebron High School.  Melody, who is not nearly as out-going as her extroverted mother, approached Greg to tell him that her mother also taught at Hebron.  He asked her name, and Melody clarified that he was probably too young to remember her, but when she said Teresa Shirlen Freed, she told me that Greg just stared at her for the longest time.  Of course he knew her.  He was one of her students!  After the service, I went over to the Warehouse and met Greg, and we shared several stories over the next hour.  It was so cool to hear him talk about Teresa, and I think we were both astounded over this coincidence.  Even more, we realized just how much God had a hand in what was happening, and how much Teresa had played a role in us meeting at that moment....

Teresa had taught at Mount Hebron High School, impacting and being impacted by students, particularly those who were in the youth program at Grace Community Church, including a young Greg Murach.  Teresa and I later meet, get married, and begin attending Grace because of the wonderful experiences Teresa had with the students there.  Melody is born, and once old enough, begins attending that very same youth program, where she meets Greg, who is not only a youth counselor, but a teacher at Mount Hebron.  And the circle is completed.  God is so good!

Yesterday, I received an email from Greg asking if I would be at Grace last night, that he had a gift for me.  He approached me during the service and handed me a large photo album.  He warned me not to look at it until later, because he was emotional after looking through it.  The album contained so many letters written by Hebron students addressed to Melody, telling her about what her mother, their teacher, meant to them.  Most were written only days after Teresa's homegoing.  They were compiled and being held by one of Teresa's colleagues from back in the day, and it was only because Melody approached Greg that they were brought to light.  What an amazing, precious gift!

It was like opening a time capsule.  Melody and I spent the whole evening laughing, crying, and discussing so many of the little stories captured by the students.  I don't have the words to describe how appreciative I am for this incredible gift.

Teresa was an amazing person.  I loved her so much, and I miss her every day.  She was an amazing teacher, friend, daughter, mother, wife, and companion.  I look forward to our grand reunion some day, but I'm thankful for the gift of eternal life that can only be found in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  I know Teresa is in the arms of God, and that helps me get through each day, just as my wonderful, beautiful daughter, Melody, reminds me of just how precious life is.

Have a wonderful evening, everyone!

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Big Road Trip, Part 14: Six Flags Over Texas

Up kind of early, we checked out of our hotel and made a supply run to the local Walmart.  We were soon on the road, headed southwest out of Amarillo on US 287.  The drive was uneventful.  Texas is fairly flat, and it seems to take forever to get to where you're going.  There were no real highlights, either, except the experience of traveling through small-town Texas towns.  I love getting off of the interstates.  It's one thing to hurry from destination to destination, but sometimes it's nice to just soak in the local atmosphere, and the smaller roads provide that.

We stopped to gas up in one of those little Texas towns, but did not make another stop other than for quick restroom breaks.  We had a late lunch just outside of Wichita Falls at a Cracker Barrel, then continued on into the Fort Worth-Dallas metro area.  We arrived just at the start of rush hour, and encountered quite a bit of traffic.

Soon, we arrived at our Sleep Inn in Arlington, TX.  We were located right across from Six Flags Over Texas, and one of the roller coasters ran past the hotel parking lot.  From our room, we could also see the Dallas Cowboys immense domed stadium, and the Texas Rangers ballpark.  We cleaned up, then headed back out, deciding to walk over to the amusement park.

We arrived just as it began raining, which, unfortunately, because there was lightning, shut down every ride in the park.  Our plan had been to grab dinner first, but because all of the rides were stopped, every guest seemed to have the same idea.

I'll interject here one of my pet peeves regarding Six Flags parks.  I hate to make a generalization, but cleanliness is not their strong suit.  Neither is the food.  My daughter and I have visited many amusement parks over the years, and I guess we're just spoiled.  Busch Gardens, in particular, is the nicest, cleanest park in the USA, by far, in my opinion, and they have excellent food at all of their eateries.  Six Flags, on the other hand, has mass-produced, very bland tasting meals that are, frankly, poorly prepared.  Finding a clean table is also an issue, and on this evening, I actually had to find an employee to wipe down the only free table we could find.  Anyway, it wasn't a good experience.

Fortunately, the rain let up and the rides started running again.  We were able to get a nice number of rides in before the park closed for the night, including the New Texas Giant and Titan.  Both were excellent!  We also rode Mr. Freeze, which was a nice respite from the immense heat and humidity.

We crashed for the night, but decided to go back the next day.  So, after a good night's sleep, we ate a quick breakfast, checked out, and drove over to the park.  We arrived just as they opened.  It was really hot.  I had been warned by colleagues who work in Oklahoma City that the Texas summers were hot, but I really wasn't prepared.  Daughter Melody and I made a pact to drink plenty of water as we went along.

The park was not crowded, at least initially, so we were able to walk on to many rides.  One favorite was Runaway Mountain, an indoor coaster.  It was nice and cool inside the building, and we rode it twice.  We rode a few more coasters, but the heat began to get unbearable, and with the increasing crowds and the drive ahead, we decided to leave the park at around lunch time.  We were happy and satisfied with the experience, and left happily.

We did a quick search, and found a nearby Chick-Fil-A, the only fast food joint that we patronize regularly.  It was crowded, but we ate a nice meal.  We also changed clothes since we were drenched from sweat after the morning at the park.  Then we were back on the road, headed towards Dallas.

Have a great day, everyone!

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Big Road Trip, Part 13: Santa Fe and the Big Texan

I awoke much earlier than daughter Melody, so I got ready and began exploring the beautiful old El Rancho Hotel, located in Gallup, New Mexico, a sleepy town in western New Mexico with a large American Indian population.  It is supposedly known as the ceremonial capital of Native America, with large numbers of Navajo, Zuni, and Hopi Tribes.

The El Rancho Hotel became to "Hotel of the Stars" because so many Hollywood movie stars stayed here while filming movies in the American Southwest.  Pictures of many celebrities from the early to mid 1900s adorn the walls in the gorgeous lobby, and each of the hotel rooms is named for a celebrity, including Gregory Peck, James Stewart, Lucille Ball, Doris Day, John Wayne, Jack Benny, Kirk Douglas, Jane Wyman, Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Ronald Reagan ("The Presidential Suite"), and the Marx Brothers.  Melody and I stayed in the W.C. Fields room.  When I stayed here back in 1997 during my solo cross-country trip, I stayed in the Joel McCrea room.

I took lots of pictures around the hotel, then checked back in to find Melody was ready to go.  We checked out, then grabbed a nice breakfast at a nearby Cracker Barrel.  Then we returned to the downtown area and did some window shopping, admiring the Native American-crafted jewelry, blankets, and furniture.

Today was a catch-up day, since we didn't make very good progress the day before.  My goal was to have dinner in Amarillo, TX, by evening.  So we hit the road and did a lot of driving, basically bypassing most of the towns in New Mexico and pushing ahead to Santa Fe.  When my wife, Teresa, and I passed through Santa Fe in 2000, we were unable to make the visit to the Loretto Chapel, home of the Miraculous Staircase.  I wanted to rectify that by going with Melody.

We arrived in Santa Fe right at lunch time.  The downtown historic area was very busy, and on-street parking was difficult to find.  We finally found a spot several blocks from the Chapel, right on old historic Route 66.  This gave us a chance to walk around a bit and take in the ambience of Santa Fe, with its adobe architecture and Native American culture.  It is such a gorgeous city.

We found the Loretto Chapel, right at the end of the old Santa Fe Trail.  The Chapel is part of the Academy of Our Lady of Light, founded by Catholics in 1853.  The Chapel was completed in 1878, and features the St. Joseph's Staircase, referred to as miraculous because it makes two complete 360-degree turns, stands 20 feet tall, and has no center support, resting solely on its base and against the choir loft above, and constructed with only square wooden pegs with no glue or nails.  The Chapel is gorgeous inside, with features such as a Gothic altar and the Stations of the Cross.

After taking lots of pictures and getting souvenirs, we headed out, looking for a place to eat lunch.  Everything was so crowded, and knowing we needed to get on the road, we trekked back to our Jeep and headed back out of town, looking for something quick to eat.  We ended up getting some really bad gas station pizza, since there seemed to be no chain restaurants in the immediate area.

We headed south on US 285 towards Clines Corners along a beautiful landscape, watching as a thunderstorm brewed in the distance.  We finally ran right into it as we reached I-40, and it rained like cats and dogs for the next several miles, until we were able to get ahead of it.  We kept up our pace and raced through the rest of New Mexico, somewhat regretting that we were going to miss a few sites, but anxious to make up for lost time.

We jumped off the interstate just west of the border between New Mexico and Texas, and drove through the ghost town of Glenrio.  Putting down our windows, all we could hear were the wild dogs that roam the once-busy town on Old Route 66, which began it's slow decline after being bypassed by the interstate.  We took a bunch of pictures of the practically abandoned town (I've read that there is one occupant still living in the town, serving as sheriff, mayor, and keeper of the flame).  Of particular note is the old "First in Texas-Last in Texas" gas station.

Returning to the I-40, we entered Texas, a first for Melody.  We continued to head east at a pretty good pace, anxious to get to Amarillo before dark.  We had to make a stop at the legendary Cadillac Ranch, however, just on the outskirts of Amarillo.  It's a rite of passage to visit this shrine along Route 66, home to "public art" in the form of ten old Cadillacs (models from 1949-1963) buried nose-down in the dirt, supposedly at the same angle as the Egyptian pyramids.  It's a rite of passage to mark the cars with your own artwork, and many bring cans of spray paint to decorate them as they desire.  Melody and I brought Sharpies, and we placed messages on one of the cars, took a few pics, and returned to the road.

We soon entered Amarillo, and I headed straight to the Big Texan Steak Ranch, a highlight of both of my previous stops in the Texas Panhandle.  The Big Texan is a noteworthy restaurant with good western-style meals, and features the epic 72 ounce, eat-it-in-an-hour-and-it's-free, steak.  The cavernous dining room has hundreds of tables, including a balcony, and a large stage right in the middle where patrons desiring to try the 72-ounce contest sit, for all to see, as they attempt to finish not only the steak, but a baked potato, salad, roll, and shrimp cocktail, all in under an hour.  Here are the official rules:

  1. Entire meal must be completed in one hour...
  2. Before the clock starts, you are allowed to cut into the steak and take one bite to make sure it tastes good and is cooked to your satisfaction...
  3. Once you start, you may not stand up, leave the table, or allow anyone else to touch your meal...
  4. You will be disqualified if anyone assists you in cutting, preparing, or eating  your meal...
  5. You don't have to eat the fat, but this will be judged...
  6. Should you become ill, the contest is over and you lose...
  7. You are required to pay the full amount up front, and will be refunded 100% if you win...
  8. You must sit at a table that we assign....
  9. If you do not win, you are welcome to take the leftovers with you...
  10. No consumption or sharing of the leftovers is allowed in the restaurant once the contest is over...
  11. If you fail to complete the challenge, you must pay the full $72.
There have been well over 9500 winners to the challenge, but success rate is not high.  The ultimate champ is a young lady who ate one of the steak meals in under 5 minutes, and ate 3 total in under 20 minutes.  That's a lot of steak!

Melody and I enjoyed our steaks, then we checked into a nearby Sleep Inn for the night.  We were tired, having spent most of our day in the Jeep on the road.  But we were still having a blast!

Have a great day, everyone!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Big Road Trip, Part 12: Eastern Arizona and Route 66

Our epic road trip continued as we woke up after a wonderful day at the Grand Canyon and a really cool evening in Williams, AZ.  We went to a nearby diner for breakfast (Jessica's), where the owner wandered from table to table to talk to the guests.  Then we drove a few blocks and returned to Cruiser's to hunt for souvenirs.  We wandered through several neat shops around the downtown area before hitting the road, heading east.

We gassed up and jumped onto Interstate 40, exiting whenever possible to drive old historic Route 66, which runs parallel to 40.  Flagstaff, AZ, is one of my favorites, and if it hadn't been so early, we likely would've stopped at one of the many great restaurants in town.  Instead, because we had gotten such a late start, we just continued heading east.

Our next stop was at Meteor Crater.  This is the "best-preserved" impact site in the world, which resulted from a collision between an asteroid and the Earth approximately 50,000 years ago.  It is one mile across, 2.4 miles in circumference and more than 550 feet deep.  There is an indoor and an outdoor viewing area, a nicely done movie documentary about meteors, and an interactive museum.  The gift shop has a nice collection of rocks, too.  Melody's favorite souvenir was purchased here, as well:  a genuine desert cactus!

The next stop was Winslow, AZ, whose claim to fame is being named in the Eagles tune, "Take It Easy."  The famous lyric is, "Well I was standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, and such a fine sight to see:  it's a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford, slowin' down to take a look at me."  And, sure enough, on a corner in Winslow, AZ, there's a statue of a man leaning on a lamp post, and a mural on the wall behind it of a flatbed Ford with a young lady in the driver's seat.  It's likely the most famous tourist attraction in that part of Arizona.  There are a few souvenir stores nearby, too, and lots of Eagles memorabilia.  Then we grabbed some lunch at an eatery just up the road.

After lunching, we headed east again on I-40 to the Jack Rabbit Trading Post, near Joseph City, AZ, and famous for its "Here it is!" signs.  This is a favorite spot of mine for souvenirs along Route 66.  I stopped here in 1997 and got a favorite chili mug, one that had a recipe that became the base for my own chili recipe.  My wife and I stopped here in 2000, too.  As Melody and I were looking around, we found the stores visitor's log, which my wife and I signed on our visit 16 years ago, but the log only went back to 2002.

Heading east again, we drove to Holbrook, AZ, and stopped at the Wigwam Motel, a famous landmark along 66.  This place is unique because each motel room is an independent structure shaped like a wigwam.  There were many more in existence years ago, but only a few remain, and Holbrook's is one of the best examples.  The owners keep a nice collection of old cars around the property, too.  Melody and I took some pictures, then continued on to our next stop.

We entered Petrified Forest National Park at the south entrance, and drove north through the entire length of the park.  We stopped at the Visitor's Center, and made the requisite stops at the various overlooks.  There's a cool stop in the park where the road crosses the original alignment of old Route 66, which used to run straight through the park property.  It's nice that the park recognizes the importance of this old highway.  It began to get very overcast, and soon it began to rain.  Unfortunately, it was also closing time for the park, and the visitors centers and old park lodge were no longer open.  So we exited at the north entrance and jumped back on Interstate 40.

A few miles later, with the rain having passed but dusk quickly approaching, I decided to take a little off-roading adventure.  Just east of Petrified Forest, outside of the National Park boundary, the old route for 66 ran in a straight east to west line about a mile north and parallel to I-40.  It is nothing but a dirt path now, but is accessible from an exit ramp and dirt road running north to the route.  My wife and I drove it back in 2000, and a few miles west on the route will take you to the shell of the old abandoned Painted Desert Trading Post.  So we decided to check it out.  I wanted to get there before darkness fell, so I knew we'd have to hurry, since I didn't want to drive on an abandoned dirt road in the middle of nowhere in the dark.  So I found the exit, and we took the dirt road out to old Route 66.  When we reached the intersection, there was a wire fence across the road, preventing access.  I later found out, doing an Internet search, that the land is now privately owned.  That's a shame, because it really is a cool side trip adventure.  We had to turn around, though, and head back to the interstate.

I stopped for gas and I checked for accommodations for the night.  What I really wanted to do, though, was stay at the El Rancho Hotel in Gallup, New Mexico, which was less than an hour away.  I secured a room reservation, and off we went.  It was already dark, but the drive was swift and we arrived at about 8pm.  We decided to eat at the hotel restaurant, and we had a nice night exploring the gorgeous old hotel.  It was another fine day of travel, and we were looking forward to next day's adventure.

Have a great day, everyone!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Big Road Trip, Part 11: The Grand Canyon

We awoke early.  It was tough to get going because we were up so late last night, and the hectic desert driving in the dark wore on me.  But I was so excited to return to the Grand Canyon, and see daughter Melody experience it for the first time.

While Melody was getting ready, I saw an ad for an activity at the Grand Canyon that we could do, and I quickly made a reservation.  I intentionally kept any details secret from Melody for now.

We had a nice full breakfast at the adjacent restaurant, then hit the road out of Tuba City.  It wasn't long before we saw the first signs of the canyon.  We entered the park and soon arrived at Desert View, on the eastern edge of Grand Canyon National Park.

It was really hot, even this early in the day, but I could hardly wait to see Melody's reaction to her first sight of the canyon.  We descended the slight rise from the parking lot to the familiar tower at the Desert View overlook, and there it was:  the Grand Canyon!  Melody was duly impressed, and it took her a moment to take it all in.  It's just SO big!

We spent much of the rest of the day exploring the south rim of the canyon, stopping at all of the view points and overlooks along the south rim road.  We eventually arrived at the official visitor's center, and we looked for a place to grab a late lunch.  The food was good, but I observed that there were a lot of flies in the building, which was a very real nuisance.

After eating, we explored the gift shop, walked around a bit more, took one more look at the canyon, then we headed south out of the park.  The next stop was the surprise that I had arranged that morning.  We went to the Grand Canyon Airport.  Melody was really surprised to discover we would be riding in a plane out over and around the Grand Canyon.  We checked in to our flight at Grand Canyon Airlines, and we soon boarded our plane.  Melody and I were in the last two seats in the back, which provided us with the best views out of the panoramic windows on each side of the plane.

The plane taxied to the runway and began the run into the air.  There was a little bit of nervousness for both of us, for me mostly because I had never before been on a plane that small.  We took to the air, and the plane headed back around to the eastern side of the canyon.  We took lots of pictures and video as we went.  Melody was on the right side, and I was on the left, so we were able to get some very unique views.

Having worked on the Grand Canyon aeronautical chart in my job as a cartographer, I was very familiar with the topography of the canyon, as well as the routes that the air tour operators take around the canyon.  It was quite different being up in the air over the canyon in a plane, but I could at least anticipate a little bit what I was seeing.  Still, it does nothing to prepare one for the awe of the spectacular scenery.

I looked over at Melody and she didn't look so good.  I asked her if she was okay, and she revealed that she was feeling nauseous.  Poor girl was just a bit air sick.  I could understand that.  We had never done anything like this, and while the ride was smooth overall, it was nothing like riding on a large airliner.

After completing the full circuit around the route of the canyon, the plane began the return to Grand Canyon Airport.  I looked down and saw a Grand Canyon Railway train on the tracks below.  We passed over the town of Tusayan, then we descended and quickly landed at the airport.  Melody looked greatly relieved to be on the ground.  It was a great ride, a memorable experience.  And while Melody had not felt great for much of the ride, she was feeling okay.

We grabbed a few souvenirs, then headed south again and soon arrived in Williams, AZ, the last Route 66 town to be bypassed by the interstate.  We found our hotel, right on the western edge of town, and cleaned up.  Then we headed into the town.

Williams was hopping!  The town was full of Route 66 cruisers, and we saw that there was live music outside at Cruiser's Cafe 66.  We got a table right next to the stage, and enjoyed a great evening of food and the music of John Carpino.  Melody told me later that this was one of the most memorable evenings of our epic journey:  hanging out in the little town Williams, sitting right next to old historic Route 66, chilling to some great live music.

We crashed back at our hotel fairly late, but so fulfilled with the adventure of a lifetime.

Have a great evening, everyone!

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Big Road Trip, Part 10: Colorado and Four Corners

We slept in a little bit after a long day of driving the day before, but we still had a long way to go on this day.  But we were in all new territory for me, since I had never traveled into this part of Colorado before.  We were entering into the heart of the Western Rocky Mountains.  We left our hotel in Montrose, CO, at around 9:45, made a quick stop at an area Target for a few supplies, then headed into the mountains.

We began gaining elevation almost immediately, and entering into the scenic town of Ouray along US 550 felt like we were coming into a true Western mining town.  I wished at the time we had more time to explore, but we were anxious to push on deeper into the mountains.  

We quickly gained elevation again, heading up and up.  It was slow going only because of the twisty roads and many RVs who had to keep their speed in check.  I hate to keep talking about the beautiful scenery, but it truly was gorgeous.

The weather changed dramatically as we went along.  At the lower elevations, it was somewhat humid and warm, but it was much cooler the higher we went.  It also was very cloudy, and we kept losing our sun.  And whenever the clouds took over, we had moisture on the windshield.  It became almost a joke how much rain we were getting on the trip.  Since we left over a week prior, it had rained every day at least a little bit.

We crested another ridge and we hit a major construction zone, where the 2-lane road went to one lane, with traffic alternating every 15 minutes or so.  So we came to a stop and we had an unscheduled break.  Pulling up our onboard navigation system, we saw we were at 11,001 feet:

We continued on down into another valley to the town of Silverton.  We drove through town, taking notes on possible lunch stops, on our way much deeper into the mountains beyond on our way to the Old Hundred Gold Mine.

We were surprised, though, just beyond the town, the pavement ended and it became gravel and hard dirt.  With on-again off-again rain, it became a muddy mess.  We continued deep into the mountains until we reached the mine.

We arrived at the mine and realized we were going to have to change clothes.  It was downright chilly, and we were told that it was even colder inside the mine.  We explored the area around the mine, and we had the opportunity to do a little panning for gold and silver.

Soon, our "ride" arrived... an old motorized "train."  We were told to get hardhats and raincoats, since it was wet inside.  An old gentleman who reminded me of actor William Brimley, and who had once worked in the mine when it was still active, was our tour guide.  He was a character.  He had plenty of stories, and shared what life was like "back in the day."  It was very interesting.  We were in the mine for about 45 minutes.

We were really hungry by this time, so we headed back to Silverton.  It was like being in the Old West, with horse-led wagons and turn of the century buildings.  We had lunch at the Brown Bear Cafe, and discovered that the owner was a member of Steeler Nation.  The food and service were great, and we soon were back on the road.

The drive thru the mountains continued to be impressive, and we quickly reached the town of Durango.  We found a pit stop for rest rooms and snacks, then continued to our next stop.

We arrived at Mesa Verde National Park fairly late in the afternoon.  We still had a long way to go, so we didn't spend a whole lot of time here, as much as we wanted to.  We drove fairly deep into the park, checking out a few of the overlooks, but there just wasn't enough time to stop at the cliff-dwellings, which were quite a long distance into the park.  Returning to the entrance, we continued west.

We stopped to gas up in Cortez, CO, and watched the topography change from mountainous to desert.  There were the occasional very unusual formations, which was a reminder of how close we were to Monument Valley.

Our next stop was at Four Corners, the only point in the US where four states come together at a shared boundary (Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah).  We arrived literally minutes before the site closed for the night.  I didn't know what to expect, thinking it was just a monument in the middle of nowhere.  But it was much different.  First of all, it's on Navajo Nation land, and it's run by that tribe.  It also means there is an entrance fee, which was a surprise.  It was somewhat crowded, too, and we had to wait our turn to get pictures.  While the site itself is quite nice, the services, consisting of a food truck with Native American food, and port-a-johns, left a bit to be desired.  With the sun going down, and the closing bell about to ring, we quickly jumped back on the road.

The sun began to drop below the horizon and we had a spectacular sunset.  We hadn't made very good time today, and we would miss some incredible scenery across Monument Valley.  We had a very expensive hotel room waiting for us in Tuba City, AZ, and we were still a few hours away.  We also needed to eat.  It became apparent that we weren't going to see any services for a while.  So, approaching a Sinclair gas station, I decided to stop.  We grabbed a few snacks and cobbled together a makeshift dinner.  Back on the road, we watched the remainder of our daylight disappear.

It was scary driving for a while. We were on a 2-lane road with high speeds, and on-coming traffic was intimidating.  We made one more stop, at a McDonald's in Kayenta, AZ.  We finally arrived at our Quality Inn in Tuba City.  It was nice, but not necessarily worth the $200 rate for the night.  But because of its proximity to the Grand Canyon, the owners could justify our most expensive night of the trip.

We were exhausted!  It was a great day, and we covered 370 miles of driving, which put us over 3000 miles for the trip.  Much more to come!

Have a great evening, everyone!