The last day of our trip started at the crack of dawn, thanks to another strange time change and a complete lack of any clock-like device inside the wigwam. We dined on trail mix and granola bars (it is perhaps possible that we purchased a bit too much of that stuff) and loaded up the Highlander in one final and truly epic rock push. Our stuff, you see, had to be ready to put onto an airplane, which required it to be organized in some sensible fashion for the first time in over a week. We said good bye to the Wigwams and were on our merry way.
Our Rough Guide had nothing positive to say about our planned destination of Meteor Crater, so the night before we had called an audible. It seems that Meteor Crater is privately owned and operated, which basically meant they gouged you at every opportunity while providing basically no services or amenities whatsoever. Also, the author pointed out that "You'll quickly realize that you can only walk around the edge of a giant hole in the ground for so long before you feel like you've seen the whole thing". So instead we opted to head to Walnut Canyon, which to me was a pleasant change of plans since we had already skipped Canyon De Chelley and Mesa Verde (both due to scheduling constraints....if you really want to do the American Southwest properly and are willing to move at the pace Danielle and I set, you need 3 weeks minimum). The drive wasn't too bad, and we arrived well before lunch time.
Walnut Canyon is basically a collection of cliff dwelling ruins spread around a canyon on which grows...walnut trees. Upon our arrival we walked into the second nicest visitor center of the entire trip (behind only the newly renovated and super eco-friendly one at Zion) and spent some time looking at the dioramas in a side room, which were some of the most detailed I had ever seen. They depicted everyday life in the canyon circa 1200AD, and explained how up to 70 families managed to work together and survive in such an unusual environment. After that, it was off to hike our last trail of the trip, a 2ish mile trek down into the canyon and back up the other side. There were tons of stairs involved, but by this point in the trip our legs and lungs were nearly invincible. Danielle actually commented that it was a shame we couldn't go to Yosemite and kick Half Dome's butt the following weekend, because it would likely never be as easy again. The hike itself was easy and led past dozens of dwellings in various states of decay. In a few cases the structures had been repaired to resemble what they had looked like nearly 1000 years ago; you could even go "inside" some of them. The most striking thing about the structures, to me, was just how black some of the rocks had become from years of burning fires with almost no ventilation. Second-hand smoke has nothing on what these people had to put up with just to eat dinner every night.
Our stay at Walnut Canyon was pretty short, as we had a lot of ground left to cover. We piled back into the Highlander and Danielle permitted me to turn on my GPS in an effort to find our lunch destination; Cracker Barrel! It has been a standing point of concern of mine for some time that Danielle had never sampled the wondrous experience that is Cracker Barrel. Simply by stepping inside one of these establishments magical things begin to happen. You suddenly feel very thin, fit, and intelligent, and can't help but wonder if you've in fact been transported back in time to 1994 (which, coincidentally, actually happens when you drive to Reno). Danielle and I ate some good old fashioned southern food (which gave her a stomach ache, thanks I believe to our diet of granola and dried fruits and nuts over the past three days and her weakness for gravy), then we made the mandatory stop in the convenience store to purchase ten sugar sticks for one American dollar (which we consumed throughout the rest of the day, doing more damage to our teeth in one afternoon that most can do in a month). Then it was back into the Highlander in plenty of time to stop and visit the damn dam.
First of all, as I already lamented in part one of this trip report, the Hoover Dam is actually part of the freeway. Even if you don't want to see it, you have to drive over it to get to a lot of places (in our case, Las Vegas), which is completely absurd. There is a public works project going on to build another bridge, for cars, so that traffic need not come to a complete stop for miles in either direction of the dam, but from what I can tell this project is a long way from completion, as you can see below.
Now the dam itself is very cool. I mean, building that thing in the 1930s or whenever the heck they did it was nothing short of an engineering marvel. But as a tourist attraction, this thing just isn't up to code. First of all, they charged us $7 to park in the garage. That's seven more dollars than we spent on parking for the entire rest of the trip, including our stay in the Navajo Nation. Now admittedly in many cases we had to pay a small fee to enter a park or attraction, and they couldn't exactly do that here since we were driving on the freaking freeway, but $7 just kind of ticked me off. So we parked, then began wondering around on top of the thing. We quickly found out two things. First, it cost $8/person to walk inside the visitor center. This was a first for the entire trip. Charging admission to the visitor center? OK, so we didn't really need to see that. Perhaps we could take a tour. But there was only one place to find out our options for touring this damn thing. You guessed it; inside the visitor center! We did manage to find a sign or two declaring that dam tours cost $35/person, and no longer included the really cool inner workings of the damn dam because apparently it was considered a national security risk. Eventually we settled on walking across the dam on foot, taking some pictures, then buying a coke and some smushed pennies in the gift shop (not part of the visitor center apparently) and heading on our merry way. Kind of an anticlimactic ending, but honestly it was on the way back to Vegas and we pretty much had to stop.
We arrived at the Vegas rental car super-center about 12 minutes late, apparently, and were basically charged an extra $60 for our car (which was odd, since the total cost was actually less than that per day). It was at this point that we found out our flight had been delayed 90 minutes, so we decided to wait in line and complain about the extra charges, which caused them to be completely removed. Nice. Luggage in tow, we grabbed a cab to the airport, got through security in about 4 minutes, then walked across the entire airport looking for a place to eat dinner (we weren't really hungry, but what else are you gonna do an airport for 2 hours). Much to our chagrin most of the places were closed (Seriously, it was like 7pm and there were closed restaurants. When, exactly, are they open?), but we eventually found a Mexican place about 2 miles from our gate and had a nice relaxing snack while reflecting on the trip. We declared it a rousing and unqualified success, and are already looking forward to our next "big" vacation, tentatively scheduled for 2011.