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Roaming During 'Rona - A summer 2020 roadtrip through the American Southwest

Roaming During 'Rona - A summer 2020 roadtrip through the American Southwest

Old Apr 18, 21, 2:54 pm
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Join Date: Jun 2009
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Roaming During 'Rona - A summer 2020 roadtrip through the American Southwest

Preamble

I think it's fair to say 2020 was a rough year. For those of us working in hospitality, hoo boy, rough is rather an understatement. When the 'rona panic hit my hotel, it went from 140 employees to 8 basically overnight. I'm honestly not sure if I was lucky or not to be one of those eight. In early May, I was asked if I wouldn't mind going to babysit one of our smaller properties about two hours away from home for about three weeks while their General Manager was doing something similar at another property. Running an 80 room property in the middle of a pandemic where nobody was travelling sounded like a good little break from reality for a while, so I said sure.

The day I arrived, we actually ran out of clean rooms due to unexpected demand. The floodgates at that hotel had opened and it stayed that way for the two and a half months I was there. 12-16 hour days, 7 days a week. It took a toll, but one thing kept me going. July 10th would be my last day there, and on July 21st I had a little vacation booked for my wife and I to travel to Chicago to celebrate our anniversary.

Then on the 3rd of July I saw the news that Chicago would start the first of its travel restrictions, and my state was one of those requiring a 14 day quarantine to visit. Now, I am aware that it's something I absolutely could have gotten away with, but I'm just not that guy.

So, instead of five days in Chicago, maybe it was time to book something a little... bigger?



Ok, so a couple of things inspired this trip. My work anniversary was on September 9th and I'd so far failed to use any of my two weeks vacation. If I did not take it by the first week of September, it would disappear. Combine that with some weekends, and it was possible to take sixteen days off in a row. You can get pretty far in sixteen days. Hilton had recently re-opened inventory for employee rate reservations, while demand had not yet increased to the point that they were even close to difficult to find. This would be almost the perfect opportunity to take an incredible road trip that I could actually afford.

I do have to add one caveat. The vast majority of hotel reservations on this trip were made using an employee discount. As such, I am not permitted to share public feedback about those stays. Any information I post about those stays will be simple information about the hotel, and nothing particularly personal about my specific stay there. In some markets I chose to use Honors points to book an upgraded room or just to get into a hotel I would prefer to stay at. For those stays, I can be far more personal about the stay.

16 days, 12 hotels, 12 states, 5,000 miles, two people and one dog. Let's do this!

August 21st 2020 - Nashville, TN

About three days before our trip was due to begin, our flakey night auditor called out and I ended up working a double shift at the hotel. When the GM pushed back on her flakiness, she quit on us. Good times. This is how I found myself working until 5am the night before our trip was due to begin. Funsies! To top it all off, a faulty smoke detector in the elevator landing on the third floor caused a full evacuation at 3am. To this day, I am amazed at the number of people who hear a fire alarm going off and choose to call the front desk to ask if it's real. Surprisingly few angry people, and thankfully nobody who sleeps naked or in just their underwear in the lobby.

August 22nd 2020 - Nashville, TN to Hot Springs, AR



Today was about mileage rather than destination. My wife and I are pretty frequent travelers, and if there's an interesting city within 5 or 6 hours drive of where we live it's very likely we've spent at least a weekend there. At the same time, travelling with our dog meant we didn't want to spend all day in the car. Hot Springs would get us past all the boring bits and meant that when we woke up Sunday morning, everything would be new.

Our stop for the night was the brand new Doubletree Hot Springs - I had used my points for this stay, mostly due to the $125 pet fee (the most expensive on our trip) and I didn't want to have to pay a room rate on top of that. Until recently, this had been a Clarion hotel but had undergone a $20 million dollar renovation to join the Doubletree brand. Rather than being in the historic downtown part of Hot Springs, this hotel was on the shores of Lake Hamilton. One of the most important aspects about this trip was trying to make sure we travelled responsibly. Mask wearing - even in areas that didn't require them, social distancing, all that jazz.



The hotel was beautiful. They had absolutely nailed the renovation. A slight nautical theme to the room made perfect sense given the location and that the hotel even has its own private slipway for launching boats. The firepits in the outside areas made for some inviting places to congregate. And that was kind of my problem with the hotel - the other guests. The staff did a great job trying to follow and implement Hilton's CleanStay protocols. But you just can't control a whole bunch of good ol' boys and girls hanging out by the lake on a Saturday night - especially when the bar is open. The pool had a sign up saying they were limiting to ten guests at a time in the pool area and I would have been surprised if there were ever fewer than 75 people hanging out there any time I took a look.

I am not denigrating the hotel or the staff here. I work in a hotel in downtown Nashville, and if you saw anywhere in Nashville on a Friday or Saturday night it would make that hotel's public areas look like a ghost town. If lower Broadway is anything to go by, the pandemic done been over. That doesn't mean I'm comfortable with it though.

That being said, the bar was open for dinner that night and as it looked like everyone was hanging out in the outdoor areas my wife and I felt safe ordering dinner at the hotel. It was a very limited menu, with only about four entrées on it. I believe I had the better than average burger and my wife the mediocre chicken alfredo. The only real memory I have of dinner that night was trying to do mental math after my lack of sleep the night before and a large drink with my meal meant that I totally stiffed the bartender when tipping him. I meant to round up and tip approximately 20%, but instead ending up tipping about a dollar. I realized approximately an hour later while taking my dog out for her evening constitutional and stopped at the bar to re-do my ticket, making him a much happier man.

Watching the sunset from our private balcony before bed was a nice way to end a long day, and a good start to our vacation.



August 23rd 2020 - Hot Springs, AR to Oklahoma City, OK



An early start this morning. Hotel restaurant was open for breakfast, though again with a very limited menu of four or five items. Writing this several months later, nothing was memorable enough for me to be able to say how bad or good the selection was. It was fine, I guess. There was a very excitable lady hanging out on the other side of the lobby teaching a Zoom Sunday School class and I would have just killed to have that kind of energy at 6.30 on a Sunday morning.

We hit the road early enough to aim to be in Oklahoma City shortly after lunchtime. A beautiful drive through the green hills of western Arkansas was our reward. One highlight for me was passing through the unincorporated community of Y City. One of my favorite books is Let Us Build Us A City by Arkansas author Donald Harington. It's a sort of history, though unclear how much is actually true because of the narrative style, in which the author explores eleven dying towns in Arkansas that all have City in their names to see what happened to the dream of that city. It's a fascinating look at small towns in eighties' Arkansas. Y city was the closing chapter of that book, and while there was almost literally nothing to see when passing through it, I enjoyed the emotional connection.

I tinker when I plan a trip like this. I'm never happy with the first plan. There's always optimization. I had initially booked a Home2 Suites hotel on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. I hadn't really put any thought into doing anything before we hit Texas, and so where we stayed in OKC didn't really matter to me. When I realized that we'd be in the city at around lunchtime, it made sense to book something a little closer to the action. With it being a Sunday night, I was not worried about social distancing with crowds, etc. So when I saw employee rate availability at a Historic downtown hotel, with a bargain $50 pet fee and $15 self parking, I jumped at it.



The Skirvin Hilton originally opened in 1911 and is exactly the sort of hotel I would never have thought I would ever stay at when I was a kid. I've become sort of an aficionado of these old school cool hotels and I'll never pass up the opportunity to stay at one. We arrived at about 12.30 and the room I had selected online wasn't ready just yet, but the person at the front desk was able to find another room for me and let us in. After a quick lunch, I took the dog out for a little exploration of downtown Oklahoma City. I have never been prouder of Marvel than to say that she waited until she was on the lawn of a Marriott property to squat down and do her doggy business. I had no idea how well I'd trained her. Sorry, Sheraton!

We had no real plans for what to do in OKC, but it felt wrong to visit without stopping by the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum. A few years ago I had watched the PBS documentary on McVeigh and the bombing, and it was a fascinating insight into a terrible event. I am glad the Memorial does not much focus on McVeigh, instead choosing to honor the lives of those who were going about an ordinary day when everything changed for them, and also those who stepped in to help. I grew up in the UK, so I don't really know who Mr. Rogers is, but his famous quote resonates with me. “My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”

I consider myself to be among the manliest of men, but reading the stories of everyday people, especially the children in the daycare in the building, left me close to tears. In the grounds there is a chair for each of those who died in the attack, and in a video discussing the design and building of the memorial one kid talked about how honored he would be to have people sit in his mom's chair. Like, how can you not have a lump in your throat after that?



Particularly upsetting about visiting the memorial is that one of my wife's cousins fell down the right wing conspiracy theory rabbit hole a few years ago. Seeing the potential results of those beliefs felt like being punched in the gut, particularly in the lead up to the 2020 general election. Fine people on both sides, indeed.

After the heartbreak of the memorial we decided to take our dog to a local dog park we had noticed on the old Google Maps. Just a few blocks from the hotel was the Myriad Botanical Gardens and it was an absolutely beautiful space - as evidenced by the number of young ladies out on a beautiful summer evening taking their instagram selfies. Of course, my lady kind of outshone all of them.



August 24th 2020 - Oklahoma City, OK to Amarillo, TX



I've lived in the USA for more than eight years now and I'm still amazed to find unexpected cultural differences. This morning my wife and I both woke up with a song stuck in our heads. I was shocked that she had never heard Tony Christie ask
, meanwhile she couldn't understand that I had never heard of George Strait, let along the song
. Either way, the answer was yes, this is the way to Amarillo, and it would be Amarillo by mid morning, early afternoon at the latest depending on traffic.

Our first stop this morning would be to an auto parts store. My car has a turbocharger in it, which is mostly pretty nice, but it has a nasty habit of burning oil and about once a month I get the little alert on my dash that it needs a top up. I always keep a spare quart of the appropriate oil in the trunk of my car, but even after pouring it in she was still complaining. This would go on to be a common theme on this trip. Our mileage was so much higher than normal that approximately every two days I would need to top the oil up. Good times.

Today's drive was a relatively short haul across the top of Texas. It was also the day that we lost the color green, as everything became a lot more arid. My wife was not a fan of the sign at the interstate rest stop warning of rattlesnakes and tornadoes, though thankfully nothing about rattlesnake tornadoes (Hey, Syfy movie team, have I got a great idea for you!). Gonna be a hard sell if we ever need to move to that part of the country, I guess.

Our first stop in Amarillo was Cadillac Ranch on the western side of the town. I can think of nothing that epitomizes America more than to take a whole bunch of cars, bury them bottoms up in the ground and allow anybody with access to spray paint to do whatever they like to them. Of course, also epitomizing America was the absolutely ridiculous number of empty spray cans just tossed on the ground and left there with no intention of cleaning them up. It made for some cool photos, though, so I guess it was worth the potential environmental damage. In defiance of the guy out front selling Trump merchandize from a horse trailer, my wife found a can of spray paint with enough left in it to mark one of the cars with the initials BLM. Fight the power!



After hitting up Chic Fil A for lunch, we headed south out of town to Palo Duro Canyon State Park. Signs on the highway advised us the park was full and those without reservations would be turned away, but not until we were more than halfway to the park so I figured we'd risk it. For the first time outside of the cartoons, I saw literal tumbleweeds crossing the roads. When we arrived at the gate, I think we might have woken the ranger up from a nap as the park was so quiet. The sign on the highway was a leftover from the weekend, and I don't think we saw more than ten or fifteen cars in our entire afternoon there.

We enjoyed the beautiful drive down through the canyon. When we got out of the car and decided to go for a little hike, our minds were quickly changed by the stupid temperatures. 93 degrees Fahrenheit with little to no shade. Nah, nah, honey I'm good. We had bought Marvel a giant hamster type water bottle for her crate in the car, and up until that morning she had refused to use it but the heat from her walk was so strong she decided it was worth trying. Maybe not as good as a bowl of water, but it seemed to work.



Our destination for the night was a Hampton Inn off of the interstate on the eastern side of town. It was nothing fancy, but it did what Hamptons do so well- give you everything you need in a hotel room with little you don't need. I was slightly tickled by the sign on the luggage cart that expressed the frustration felt by all my fellow front desk warriors. But for reals, though, if you are the kind of person who does this please know that we think you're a real censored.



August 25th 2020 - Amarillo, TX to Carlsbad, NM



I once watched a video about the placement of cities.
. The thesis was that you will get small cities every ten or so miles, then a larger city every three or four cities with some more specialized stores in it. I thought of this video while driving on a straight, featureless road through west Texas. Every ten miles or so we'd pass a grain elevator with a few buildings around it. Every three or four grain elevators there would be more buildings, maybe a gas station, or even more likely an abattoir. I think there was one we passed that could even have been described as a town. Two things I can say about this stretch of highway - it is incredibly boring, and it absolutely stinks of cow turds. Thankfully after less than two hours we made it to New Mexico.

About a week before the trip was due to kick off, my general manager had been walking through the parking garage as I was leaving and he asked me why my car was making such a loud squeaking noise. I attempted to reassure him it was just the brakes, no big deal. Apparently the brakes squealing that loudly is a big deal. Who knew? He recommended I take it to Midas and have them take care of it before our trip - it should cost maybe a couple hundred dollars he says. So I take it to Midas, and hoo boy, guess what didn't cost maybe a couple hundred dollars? $1,600 later it no longer squealed painfully when I tried to stop. This made it about $4,000 I had put into my car since I bought it the year before. Guys, don't buy a Volvo unless you have a lot of extra money when things go wrong. Anyways, point of this story is after getting through Clovis, NM and hitting the open road a deer jumped out in front of my car and suddenly that $1,600 I was mad about having to spend seemed worth every penny. Perspective is important.

When I had started discussing this trip with my wife, her ears had slightly perked up at the mention of New Mexico. There was only one thing she asked during the planning stages - would we be going near Roswell? Yes, yes we absolutely would. We arrived around mid morning and immediately recognized it as the Pigeon Forge or Myrtle Beach of the west. Roswell knows its role as the tacky, touristy alien place and it was delighted to revel in it, and we were just as delighted to partake. For me, the highlight was the lamp posts. They were absolutely perfect for the city they were in.



Marvel liked the free water bowls outside the stores on the main street.



Marvel did not like the aliens at the official visitor center.



We had somehow passed through Texas without stopping at Whataburger, so we decided to correct that by doing lunch. Frankly it was hard to see what the fuss was about. It was an acceptable fast food burger, but nothing more. As a last stop before heading out of town, we decided to hit the Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge just to see if there was any water in New Mexico, as we hadn't seen any so far. The NWR had a beautiful gravel drive around the oasis like lakes. The only issue was as soon as we opened the door of the car to let Marvel out and sniff around the car was immediately infested with approximately ten ka-jillion flies the size of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet, and nearly as loud. These flies would be our constant companion for the better part of a week. Every time we were sure we had gotten them all out, another would decide to land on you when you least expected it. Flies in your car: one out of five stars, do not recommend.



Our destination this evening was Carlsbad, another Hampton Inn. As we drove south out of Roswell, I was kind of amazed by the number of American Airlines planes parked at Roswell's small airport. According to Wikipedia, an infallible source, at the trough of the travel during the pandemic over 300 planes were ferried to Roswell for storage. We got to Carlsbad pretty early in the day, despite the long drive. New Mexico had probably the tightest lockdown restrictions on our trip, with restaurants still closed to dine in and most attractions closed. This meant we had a few hours to run some errands. I volunteered to let my wife do laundry at the hotel while I hit up the local Walmart. She asked me to get one simple thing, some sliced American cheese to go with the lunch meat, bread and mayonnaise we were using as our emergency lunch supplies for days we were in the middle of nowhere when we got hungry. Instead I got distracted by a sensible policy of allowing grocery stores to sell liquor and forgot all about getting her cheese. A case of water for the dog, a four pack of canned margaritas for the me, and some sodas for the cooler were all I remembered to buy.

We ordered take out from a local Hibachi place that evening, and it was decent. Marvel enjoyed the leftovers greatly. As the day ended and the temperatures dropped, we took Marvel for a walk along Lake Carlsbad and let her have a little swim to cool off. I ended the night with probably my favorite Facebook photo caption ever.



"New Mexico? More like Poo Mexico says Marvel"

I will not apologize

August 26th 2020 - Carlsbad, NM to Lordsburg, NM



Once the idea of a trip to the American West had started germinating in my head, I started to build it around various national parks. Living in the south east, I've visited my fair share of caves. I had heard some pretty decent things about Carlsbad Caverns National Park, and that was the reason for our pilgrimage to this corner of the country. Due to COVID restrictions, the park was no longer offering guided tours of the cave. They were issuing about 300 timed entry passes to the self guided tour a day on a first come, first served basis, with the last entry to the cave at approximately 2.30pm. I had no intention of losing out on one of these slots. The visitor center opened at 8am and my goal was to be among the first there.

I'm a Diamond Hilton Honors member, but I also interact enough with Diamond members who don't realize just how many Diamond members are in house at a hotel on any given day to ever bother anyone about it. Today would be the first day I would attempt to pull the "but I'm a diamond member" line on a front desk team member. The plan to visit the caves would be a little too tight if we had to check out of the hotel by 11am as dogs are, obviously, not allowed in the cave, and keeping her in the car would most likely result in a dead dog. I spent $40 on that dog, and I don't think the shelter give me a refund if I cooked her. Also, I kind of like her - sometimes. It felt dirty to ask for a late checkout, but the gentleman working the desk came through and allowed Marvel to hang out for an extra couple hours.

We made it to the visitor center by 7.30 and were the third group in line. Thanks to our America the Beautiful Pass our cost for two on the self guided tour was a big fat zero dollars. I had been reading some reviews of the park on my phone the night before and one had mentioned having to walk down 75 storeys to get to the main cave. I scoffed, imagining the person had misquoted what their guide had told them, maybe it was 75 stairs, or 75 feet to get into the cave. I am not scoffing now. From the moment we started descending to the time we reached the main cave was more than 45 minutes of constant walking downhill. Then we had another hour or so in the main cave, exploring the formations. I've become something of a cave aficionado. As I've visited more and more caves I often compare what I see to what I've seen bigger or better at other caves. I have no words to express the scale of Carlsbad caverns. Both in size and quality it was absolutely incredible. There is no comparison to any other cave I've visited.





While I'm sure we missed out on some of the experience by not having a guide with us to explain some of the history and geology of the cave, my experience at Mammoth Cave National Park was a little underwhelming as each group with the guide could have 200 people in it. Exploring the cave at our own pace worked for us. Also, the cave had a snack bar in it - just when I thought America couldn't get any more America.

We made it back to the hotel at around 12.30, with Marvel excited to see us. We packed her up in the car and hit the road. The drive from Carlsbad to Alamogordo was beautiful, going from a scrubland type desert, up over Alpine style beautiful green mountains and back down to a completely different, much more sandy desert. We pulled over at a rest area near Cloudcroft and I could have sworn I was in Switzerland. My internal image for New Mexico was just brown, having really only experienced it through Breaking Bad, and I could not believe this was the same state. This would be our latest start time for driving, most days we were on the road by 7am so we'd have the afternoon in the location to explore. So when I had planned this day, I hadn't really taken into account how long the driving would take and so I added in an additional stop at White Sands National Park near Alamogordo. Earlier in the year, one of my cow-orkers had driven from Nashville to her family home in Arizona and posted a picture on Facebook of her beautiful doggos on the dunes and I simply had to re-create this picture.

We got to the park at about five pm, my wife disappointed to find that the visitor center had closed the restrooms and refusing to use the portapotty. The park's coronavirus restrictions had left the visitor center and gift shop closed, though they did have someone standing at the door of the gift shop standing behind a table who would be able to answer questions and sell you souvenirs. She did let us know that the restrooms in the park were open. She didn't mention that they were pit toilets, a new experience for my wife that managed to convert her to the benefits of portapotties. Entrance fees to the park were being waived, so no need to present our pass, and we spent probably around 30 minutes exploring the dunes, doing the scenic drive, and getting the requisite photo.



Worth it.

The rest of the day was a lot of highway driving to Lordsburg. Where? Yeah, exactly. It's a small town almost in Arizona along interstate ten that seems like it exists because people need to stop somewhere, and it might as well be there. What it does have going for it is a pet friendly Hampton Inn, which we got to at around 9pm. We had powered through the driving, rather than stop for dinner, and I assumed with it being such a small town during a global pandemic we'd be lucky to get McDonald's from the truck stop, but the front desk agent actually gave us a menu for a local restaurant that would deliver to our room. I'm not sure if it was just the hunger from not having eaten anything since a fast food lunch 9 hours and 300 miles ago, but Kranberry's home cooking was perfect. My hot open faced Turkey Sandwich with gravy, cranberry sauce and sweet potato fries was divine and delivered in less than twenty minutes. A great end to a long day.

August 27th 2020- Lordsburg, NM to Oro Valley, AZ



In 2015 I had the privilege of attending Hilton's Front Office Academy. This was a three-day in-person class for front office leadership where I learned more in that three days than I had in the two years I had already worked for Hilton branded hotels. Typically this class is hosted during the off season at, to attempt something diplomatic, less exciting hotels. When my manager at the time got to to the class she ended up at an Embassy Suites near Atlanta Airport, a short three hour drive from our hotel. When I was lucky enough to attend, it was held at the Arizona Biltmore, a Waldorf-Astoria resort in Phoenix, Arizona. Really, this whole trip had been bubbling up in the back of my head ever since. I had loved that experience, and I wanted to be able to share it with my wife. Lounging around their pool soaking up the sun sounded like a great way to just switch off.

This was, like most things in 2020, kind of ruined by COVID-19, with the Biltmore closing its doors in March of 2020, and still not having reopened as I write this in early 2021. The virus has been tough on all hotels, but especially so on luxury. At least at smaller, focused service hotels, you can cut enough fat to survive off the the few remaining travelers out there, but if you start cutting restaurants and spas and valet parking and turndown service and all the extra things that make it a luxury hotel you're left with a focused service hotel with possibly slightly nicer bedding, and you won't be satisfied paying north of $300 a night for that. Closing probably loses less money than being open, so closing makes all the sense in the world. But it also makes me a sad panda.

Still, the idea of staying at a luxury hotel in Arizona for a few days of hanging around the pool and eating in fancy restaurants and living a life I could never even have imagined as a small child would not leave me, and so I settled on El Conquistador, a Hilton resort just north of Tucson. They were not only open, but even still providing services beyond a room and maybe a bottle of water and an orange for breakfast each morning. While they had closed the spa and fitness center, their beautiful main pool remained open as was Epazote, one of their fancy sounding restaurants. For this stay, I booked a king junior suite in the main building using my Honors points for two nights. I had considered booking one of the Casita Suites, but the Casita pool remained closed, and I wanted a chance of getting a view of the mountains from my room, which wasn't possible from most of the Casitas.

So, with a relatively short two and a half hour drive ahead of us with no guarantee of an early check in, we decided to take a little detour from the interstate to visit the tourist trap of the Old West - Tombstone, AZ. Thanks to the time change, we got there at 8am before anything opened and honestly this was probably the best way to experience the city. It was an absolute tourist trap, but without any tourists there yet. Walking up and down the boardwalks, imagining myself in every western movie I had ever seen was kind of cool, I guess. Perhaps if I actually knew anything about the gunfight at the OK Corral I might have had more of an emotional reaction. Tombstone is basically OK, I guess.



Also, Marvel would not co-operate with the photo taking. The only point of doing a vacation these days is the likes on Facebook. This pathetic attempt wasn't going to get us anything. The city was surprisingly dog friendly, though, with many of the stores having a bowl of water out front, and the guy hawking tickets for the trolley tour even letting us know that Marvel would have been welcome taking the tour with us. However, Marvel took an affront to the giant dogs she saw pulling a stagecoach around town. I guess horses are not counted among her favorite things as I swear her reaction to them was probably louder than the gunfight at the corral.

We probably spent around 30-45 minutes exploring down town Tombstone before hitting the road. As we were far enough west, our goal for lunch was to hit In-N-Out burger and luckily there was one more or less on the way to our hotel. Even better, it routed us past the plane graveyard at Tucson's air force base. Seeing that many planes sitting around was quite the sight. Due to COVID, In-N-Out had gone drive through only, which worked for us since it meant we wouldn't have to leave our dog alone in the car in Tucson's approximately 1200 degree Fahrenheit temperatures. While my wife and I both enjoyed our burger and fries, Marvel was not a huge fan of hers. When we did make it to our hotel we found a desiccated hockey puck of untouched meat and cheese in the food bowl in her cage.

When I was growing up in the UK, there were TV shows like "Wish You Were Here ...?" and "Holiday" where solidly upper class presenters like Judith Chalmers would go on a package holiday to an exotic location then at the end they would tell you how much it cost. I loved the shows, but the costs were so unimaginably above what my family would ever be able to afford that I couldn't even imagine I'd ever experience anything like that. Thanks to a Mothers and Toddlers group at my primary school, once a year or so we'd get a weekend in a caravan in Saltcoats, less than an hour's drive from our home. Don't get me wrong, we loved these trips, but this was the expectation of what a vacation was for my whole childhood.

So to be staying at a resort in the shadow of the Catalina Mountains in Tucson, Arizona eating something as fancy sounding as a Guajillo Marinated Skirt Steak, then watching the sun set from the private balcony of my suite was an incredibly emotional experience for me. Working in hospitality is not easy at times, it's definitely not well paid for what is expected of you, but to be given these opportunities makes it all worthwhile. For every anti-masker who doesn't care about the health of my team, or diamond member who cannot understand why they can't check in at 7am when we were sold out the night before, or every guest I've had to walk that didn't go well, or every double shift I've had to work due to my relief calling out, suddenly none of those were consequential. I went to bed a happy, grateful and content man that night.



August 28th 2020 - Oro Valley, AZ



This was our first day with no travelling planned. While papa is a rolling stone, and wherever I lay my hat is my home and so I would have been quite happy going somewhere new every single day, this trip was not just about me. Tucson was one of three stops where we would spend multiple nights - destination rather than passing through.

Breakfast this morning was at Epazote, the same restaurant we'd had dinner the night before. Fulfilling the Honors terms and conditions to the letter, diamond members were offered a continental breakfast of a yogurt granola parfait, fresh fruit and choice of bread with juice or coffee. For $5 upcharge, you were able to order anything else on the menu. For this first morning, we dined on the porch and each did the continental breakfast. It was beautiful watching the sun rise before the temperatures sky rocketed.



We were even joined for breakfast by some of the locals.



The agenda today was just listed as "do nothing, just relax" which I managed for around twenty minutes before deciding I was bored and that we needed to do something. We chose to drive out west to part of Saguaro National Park, which had never even crossed my radar prior to that morning. Driving the loop was like driving on an alien planet, surrounded by the majestic Saguaro Cacti. Sadly we were not able to do any of the hiking trails for two reasons - the first was that they do not allow dogs due to the local wildlife, which is fair enough, and the second was that it was just hot as balls out there, which wasn't. The desert is beautiful, but I am so glad I do not live that life.



The afternoon was spent with a few chores - hitting the nicest Walmart I've ever seen to finally get my wife the cheese she craved, an oil change for the car since we'd done over 2,000 miles so far on the trip, stamps from the post office for postcards, taking Marvel for a walk around the beautiful grounds of the hotel, removing cactus thorns from Marvel after she stuck her face in a prickly pear for the third time that day...



For dinner that night, we ventured outside of a hotel or takeaway restaurant for the first time in a while. As we were so close to the border, we wanted to try some Mexican food to see if it was better than we were used to at home. We had tried something similar in Amarillo, but I think the person at the front desk of the hotel had misunderstood our request for "best Mexican food in town" as "closest Mexican restaurant to hotel" - either that, or Amarillo has some really not great Mexican food. After some time on the old Google, we decided to try a local chain called El Charro Cafe, which was the kind of place we were looking for. Listed on some of those "Best X food in Y state" lists, it was exactly the right line between still being authentically good, but just touristy enough to make us feel comfortable as outsiders. I tried tamales for the first time in my life, and I think it changed my life. The single best thing about the restaurant, though, was that they had purchased a bulk load of clear shower liners and taped them up in between the booths to prevent COVID contamination between the different parties in each. Ingenious.

August 29th 2020 - Oro Valley, AZ to Flagstaff, AZ




When originally booked, I had reserved three nights at El Conquistador, figuring two full days of pool lounging would be the appropriate amount. As I said earlier, I tinker. And after a week or so of re-thinking everything I remembered that the Grand Canyon exists and that my wife had not seen it. When I had gone to Phoenix for my Front Office Academy training in 2015 I had asked my boss if I could fly out a day earlier than necessary, which he agreed to, then I rented a car and drove up to spend a day exploring the Grand Canyon. It was, you know, pretty big. So I asked my wife if she'd rather have a day of pool lounging or a chance to visit one of the natural wonders of the world. So anyway, I booked us a night in Flagstaff, which is the closest city to the Grand Canyon with a Hilton branded hotel, and dropped a night in Tucson.

On our second night at the resort, one of my friends had commented on some of my Facebook posts about how Arizona was one of the most beautiful states he'd ever visited, and that maybe I should check out the Painted Desert. The what now? Hmm, so looking at Google Maps, we could either do four hours of interstate up to Flagstaff, or take a slight detour East to the Petrified Forest / Painted Desert National Park.

Now, looking at the map it's pretty much a straight shot up US 60 via Globe and Show Low and would only add a couple extra hours of driving to the trip so, with that being decided as a good call it was time for breakfast. This morning we opted to sit inside, as the sun had already risen and so had the temperatures. We also both decided to upgrade to some of the other items on the breakfast menu. When I was younger, I used to sometimes describe myself as the opposite of a vegetarian, espousing that unless something died to make my dish, I wasn't interested in it. I think it shows growth as a person that this morning I ordered the vegetable hash. It was a delicious mix of sweet potatoes, mushrooms, peppers, some icky green bits, spiced black beans and a cilantro lime salsa. Just enough spice to waken up my taste buds, it was honestly delicious. Except the Spinach, which I ate around, because I am still basically a child.

When looking back, some days of the road trip feel like they could not possibly have been a single day as the landscape on the drive varied so much. Today would be one of those days. As we headed north out of Oro Valley, we passed through a Saguaro forest before climbing into some foothills that even occasionally gave us a hint of green.



So, that thing I said earlier about it being a straight shot up US 60 to Show Low was certainly true on the map. What that didn't take into account was the road being shut down due to a wildfire. We'd seen some evidence of wildfires already on our trip, mostly just haze in the air around Tucson, but also some pretty obvious smoke from the mountains in the west. But, you know, things that are far away won't personally affect me so who cares, right? Turns out when you drive long distances stuff that is far away doesn't always stay far away. Luckily the alternate route, through Payson, would only add an extra forty minutes or so to our detour. As we passed out of Globe towards Roosevelt Lake, it was obvious that we were passing through the remnants of another wildfire - surrounded by charred trees and burnt remains of guardrails along the side of the road. It could not have been long since it had burned, as the smell of a freshly put out fire was so strong in the air. Watching the helicopters battling the current blaze coming over the mountain and filling up with water from the lake was simply awesome.

We did stop at a boat landing on the lake to give Marvel some out of car time. She's an odd dog when it comes to water. Loves a lake or river, even loves a bathtub filled with water at the dog park (especially after peeing in it), but if I try to make her take her monthly bath she gives me the old doleful "why u do dis" eyes every time. A little wading and swimming in the lake, and all the associated interesting smells, revitalized her from a tough morning of lying in her crate. Even better, the heat from the sun meant she was actually dry by the time we got her back in the car so we didn't even have to smell damp dog for the rest of the day.

The drive along the side of the lake was beautiful with the contrast between the yellows and browns of the desert ground and the shimmering silvery blue of the lake. I also enjoyed the lowered speed limit due to resurfacing of the road which everyone else tried to ignore, so I ended up with a surprisingly large number of vehicles behind me between passing lanes. Leaving the lake behind, we started climbing to the Mogollon Rim, a change of around 3,000 feet in elevation that brought us into an entirely different climate. I might even use the word verdant. Surrounded by Ponderosa Pines, it was hard to believe that only 40 minutes before we had been in a full on desert landscape.

After passing through the town of Payson, we pulled over to the side of the road into what had been signposted as "Paleo Site Monument". Well, we had no idea what one of those might be, but it was about lunchtime and this was an appropriately wide place to pull off the road. I had purchased a steel tie out cable for Marvel for this trip, and so we were able to tie her to the guardrail in the parking lot and allow her free reign to sniff around while we made up some sammiches and snacked on chips and soda. As there was another car with a dog, Marvel ignored any meat or cheese she was offered, choosing instead to make known how indignant she was that another dog might dare exist. After our lunch, we explored the paleo site, which turned out to be a hillside chock full of fossils which you were able to hunt for. My wife loves collecting rocks, so this was something she got quite excited about.



After lunch, and no new dinosaur discoveries to name after ourselves, we hit the road again. We were very disappointed that our journey didn't route us through the wonderfully named town of Snowflake. As we approached the southern entrance of Petrified Forest National Park we had our first evidence that rain does sometimes fall out here, as the roads were still wet from a storm that had just rolled through. Again our American the Beautiful Pass saved us on the $25 entrance fee. I cannot recommend enough purchasing this pass if planning a road trip around the south west. For $80, you really only need to visit three parks to save money. The only three I had planned - Carlsbad Caverns, Grand Canyon and Arches would have cost $105 for the two of us, so it was instant savings - plus it offered the opportunity to just visit a park on a whim without worrying about additional expenses.

Petrified Forest would prove to be one of the most pet friendly national parks we visited, as Marvel was welcome on all the trails. The park ranger at the Rainbow Forest museum even initiated her into the NPS Bark Ranger program.



I grew up on the outskirts of Glasgow in the UK. We have our own petrified forest, known as The Fossil Grove, so I knew what to expect from Petrified Forest National Park. Clearly we were going to see some gray vaguely tree-shaped rocks. My favorite quote from the website of the Fossil Grove Trust is "A contemporary report from a meeting in Kilmarnock suggested that 'The forest now revealed is to Scotland what Pompeii is to Italy …'" which, um, might be an exaggeration. Look, Fossil Grove is cool and all. I am not saying it isn't. But when it comes to natural beauty, America always has to outshine.



Colors!



Something scary must have happened here, because this tree looks petrified!



Alongside a simply staggering amount of gorgeous petrified wood just strewn everywhere in various sections of the park, the park was simply beautiful and deserving of the name painted desert. As areas of the park had eroded away, different colors of rock shone through in different layers.



The National Park Service amazes me. Petrified Forest was an incredible place to visit, and yet I had never even heard of it the day before. Perhaps it gets outshone by Grand Canyon which is only a few hours away. If you ever find yourself in this part of the world, it's definitely worth taking the time to visit some of the lesser known parks.

We finished our drive through the park pretty much at its closing time, getting on I-40 west towards Flagstaff. We couldn't help but notice the road signs for Winslow. Since we were in the neighborhood, we figured we'd check out the corner, see how fine it was, whether there were any girls, my lord, in a flat bed ford. No Eagles when we were there, just other animals.



It was pretty late by the time we got to our hotel for the night, the Hilton Garden Inn in Flagstaff. I had actually stayed at the same hotel almost exactly five years previously, when on my last trip to Arizona. Since my last visit, they had chosen to become pet friendly. According to a response to a TripAdvisor review I saw, they had started welcoming dogs during the early days of the Coronavirus pandemic in an attempt to survive. It's a good call. Beyond just increasing the number of guests who are able to stay with you, even when I worked at a small 80 room property charging a relatively low $50 pet fee we made enough on pet fees alone to pay for two full time team members. Thoroughly recommend this to any other hoteliers reading. From my last trip to Flagstaff, I remembered there was a restaurant in the parking lot of the hotel that was relatively mediocre but had the massive advantage of being literally 60 seconds walk away. As we were both pretty exhausted, we ended up eating there once more. Also they had pie, which is always a bonus. A long, beautiful, satisfying day over.
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Last edited by muzthe42nd; Apr 18, 21 at 8:57 pm Reason: One image URL broken
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Old Apr 18, 21, 4:26 pm
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Great TR - I love Tony Christie and Summer Snow is my favorite. The one with the piano intro and ace lyrics :-)
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Old Apr 19, 21, 3:38 am
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Hello from Glasgow,
I did have a night in Flagstaff once,heading for the Grand Canyon but ran into a blizzard.
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Old Apr 19, 21, 11:54 am
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Interesting TR so far. I've been to some of the places on your trip, and there are a few I've not seen before. Brings back some nice memories of my time in the South-West and Western US. Looking forward to reading more.
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Old Apr 19, 21, 7:42 pm
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Cool trip report and cute pup!! Thank you for sharing.
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Old Apr 19, 21, 9:12 pm
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Originally Posted by kenko92 View Post
Hello from Glasgow,
I did have a night in Flagstaff once,heading for the Grand Canyon but ran into a blizzard.
Nice to meet another Glaswegian. Grew up in Balloch!

Originally Posted by GregWTravels View Post
Interesting TR so far. I've been to some of the places on your trip, and there are a few I've not seen before. Brings back some nice memories of my time in the South-West and Western US. Looking forward to reading more.
Glad you're enjoying it!

Originally Posted by Madone59 View Post
Cool trip report and cute pup!! Thank you for sharing.
Our overriding memory of walking around Oklahoma City with the dog was all the locals stopping us to tell us how cute she was, which she is, but it felt kind of weird having a celebrity dog.

Originally Posted by gaobest View Post
Great TR - I love Tony Christie and Summer Snow is my favorite. The one with the piano intro and ace lyrics :-)
Thanks!
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Old Apr 20, 21, 3:08 am
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Thanks for the Trip Report and Pictures.
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Old Apr 20, 21, 6:35 pm
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What a great drive! Thanks for posting all of the detail. I know it takes time. I've had two false starts on trip reports because I did not properly budget time and/or take good notes. Safe travels!
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Old Apr 23, 21, 8:44 am
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Marvel seems to have a great personality. What breed is she?
Oh yes, great TR to read - thank you for writing this up. And I so hope that soon, tourism can start picking up.
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Old Apr 23, 21, 8:58 am
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Originally Posted by roadwarrier View Post
Marvel seems to have a great personality. What breed is she?
Oh yes, great TR to read - thank you for writing this up. And I so hope that soon, tourism can start picking up.
Oh no, she has a terrible personality. But she gets away with it because how can you stay mad at that face.

According to the shelter, she is a German Shepherd/Welsh Corgi mix. I have no idea how true that is, but it certainly looks right. Ridiculous animal.
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