Plan B:  Colorado!

We came to Farmington to hike in the Bisti Wilderness, see the alien egg formations and then explore Chaco Canyon. Since the heat wave followed us that just didn’t sound fun.   So we went with plan B: Durango Colorado, 60 miles away, and up in the mountains!

P1050348Our destination was the Durango & Silverton Narrow Guage Railroad, D&SNG, built 1881-82 to transport supplies north and mining ore south between Durango and Silverton.   Given the 45 mile mountainous route with elevation increasing from 6522 to 9318 feet, the train was an engineering marvel.

P1050350When mining became less profitable after World War II the train’s future was at risk.  Hollywood provided a bridge as many films were made using the train and surrounding areas.  Tourism followed.

fullsizeoutput_5448Over time, disrepair and neglect threatened the line again.  Charles Bradshaw, a railroad historian, purchased D&SNG in 1981 upgrading the rails and equipment, and tourism grew again.

P1050361In 1989 a fire swept through the round house destroying infrastructure and damaging locomotives and cars.  Once again Bradshaw invested in the Durango and Silverton and the line was saved again.    

P1050358There are several options to ride,  all with assigned seating.  We opted for an open air car.


This ‘train was rocking’ blurry picture shows another option.


There was a concession car.   

fullsizeoutput_5433Our locomotive was #481, a Baldwin-K36 class, one of ten built in 1925 and numbered in series from 480-489. Nine of the ten are still out there.  The D&SNG owns numbers 480, 481, 482 and 486.  Each weighs 143 tons when fully loaded with water and coal and pulls 10-12 cars up the canyon.

fullsizeoutput_5431Passengers on the other side of the car were pleased with their view as we began.  


We had the mountain side and sometimes it was very close! 


We had interesting snow on our side.


During our 3.5 hour ride up the canyon we crossed the Animas River several times. 


We also stopped to take on water several times. 


Occasionally we saw steam coming horizontally out of the locomotive.  That was to fine tune the water spray for optimum production. 


The locomotive had a sooty discharge.  White pants weren’t ideal – even 6 cars back! 

fullsizeoutput_5429Coal locomotives have risk of escaping cinders.   A  special “car” follows with 30 gallons of water to douse any stray ember.  Another 500 gallon car follows that one.


And if those efforts fail, a helicopter and bucket is available.

What wasn’t clear is how many of these precautions have always been or how many are in place now because of the 2018 “416 Fire.”  Government investigators found the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and current owners, American Heritage Railways, responsible for the fire that destroyed 54,000 acres, crippled the local tourism economy and cost $25 million to fight.   Litigation is pending….


On a happier thought…Old trains seem to make people happy.  Throughout our ride we saw people taking pictures and waving. 


 We saw one of the old mines as we approached Silverton.

P1050471After arrival, train guests are guaranteed 90 minutes before return departure.  The other option is to take the bus down which allows more time in Silverton and still gets into Durango before the returning train.   We opted for the latter since we had more fun planned.


Our first task was to find lunch.  There are a number of restaurants available including the Shady Lady, site of the last Brothel in Silverton, closing in 1947. 


We opted for Natalia’s, also a former brothel, with a sign that read:  Natalia’s is home to one of the oldest standing bordellos in town built in 1883.  Sorry, that service is no longer provided… but the food is great. 

fullsizeoutput_543eHunger quenched we set about exploring.  We learned between 300-500 people winter in Silverton when temperatures can dip to 30 below zero.  Most businesses operate from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

fullsizeoutput_5447We saw a shrine on the hill and went part way up.  I later tracked down the story.  1950s Silverton was struggling with many mines closing.  The men’s club from St. Patrick’s Catholic Church was looking to honor Christ and decided to build a shrine.  County commissioners agreed to donate the land and owners of a dismantling local brewery donated the stone.  That excited the Italian stone masons and others and the shrine on the hill became a community effort.


The community raised $6,000 to buy and ship the Christ statue from Italy and celebrated when it was put in place.

Three miracles are attributed to the Christ shrine.  First, shortly after installation a uranium company purchased one of the mines reviving employment in the area for a time.  Second, 1000 seedlings donated by the Forest Service, planted by the community, and watered three times weekly for a month and a half before the rains came, survived their first winter and flourished.   The third attributed miracle came years later, in 1978, when Lake Emma burst through the mine when no one was present, thus no one was killed or injured.


A “near the shrine” view of Silverton.

fullsizeoutput_541eIn town we found Freenote Harmony Park.  These parks are the project of grammy winning musician Richard Cooke.  His mission was to build Global Musical Parks on five continents, including all 50 states in the US.  I appear to be concentrating way too hard!


The bus ride down the mountain took 90 minutes and was sporadically narrated.  We arrived in time to welcome the train that came in before ours. 

fullsizeoutput_5426We watched as workers knelt on either side and peered under the train as it went by.  We were told they were watching every axel and break pad.  They do so for every train coming and going.

We thoroughly enjoyed the train part of our day!

P1050513Next up was the BarD Old West Music Show and Chuckwagon Supper.   We’ve been to quite a few of these over the years and this one was outstanding.  BarD has been in operation since 1969 with shows nightly from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day.  

We had a great day in Colorado and even had to wear a jacket for part of the day.  Imagine a train whistle celebration for that!

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All Over the Map in Northern Arizona


We’ve done a lot during our few days in Northern Arizona.  We had to visit “the corner.”


Those of a certain age can sing  “Standing on the corner in Winslow, Arizona – Such a fine sight to see.”


“It’s a girl, my lord, in a flatbed
Ford slowin’ down to take a look at me.”


Also in Winslow we saw two pieces of steel from the twin towers and a flag from the Pentagon after 9/11.

Seeing the 9/11 Memorial prompted a search on how these artifacts end up in a small town in northern Arizona.  I found that the Port Authority started a program in 2006 to disperse 9/11 artifacts.  Because they were from a crime scene, each release was approved by a federal judge.  Artifacts were released to over 1500 sites around the world.


Still in Winslow, we visited La Posada Hotel.  It opened in 1930 and was the last grand Fred Harvey – Santa Fe Railway Hotel.  Amtrak still stops there.  Mary Jane Colter considered the La Posada her personal masterpiece – quite a statement considering she was the architect and/or designer at many iconic southwest buildings – think Grand Canyon!


In Flagstaff we drove by the less grand “High Rise” dorm I lived and worked in as a student resident advisor at Northern Arizona University.


Lots has changed at NAU in 38 years but not our married student housing apartment.  It looks the same!


We were able to go in the same engineering building and look around.  Randy found some plaques commemorating familiar professors.


Way back then the president of the computer science club had a key to this back door allowing access to the engineering building during off hours.  The president preceding Randy gave it to him and he in turn passed the key on to his replacement. 


We loved visiting campus and stopped at the bookstore to buy gear. We plan to meet University of Idaho grads Connie and Warren here for the Idaho – NAU football game in November.


As we left the bookstore we saw this guy making a delivery somewhere on campus.  He wasn’t around when we were!


La Fonda Mexican Restaurant, established 1958, was around when we were living in Flagstaff! It was one of our go-to places while we were students from 1977-81.  It was delicious and inexpensive!  


We were delighted when college friends Connie and Nick suggested we meet at La Fonda!  We enjoyed the visit and the food!


Driving around Flagstaff we noticed a 10 – 12 vehicle convoy of black Tahoes.  We assumed it was a government convoy but as we drove by the license plates were from states all across the country and were driven by regular folks, mostly but not exclusively middle aged couples.  I researched Tahoe convoys but found nothing.  Anyone?

Midway between Flagstaff and Winslow we visited Meteor Crater.  We heard someone commenting that it was just a hole in the ground.  It is a hole but he must have missed the excellent movie and museum to come away with such a demeaning attitude!

About 50,000 years ago a meteor sped towards earth at 26,000 miles per hour (think five minutes from New York to northern Arizona).  It is estimated to have been 150 feet across weighing several hundred thousand tons


One of the museum exhibits shows how heavy meteor material is compared to normal earth rocks.


The meteor struck with a force greater than 20 million tons of TNT, devastating the area for miles around.  The resulting circular crater is 700 feet deep and 4000 feet across.


Since the crater is round, early thought was that the meteor came directly from above.  Miner Daniel Berringer believed the meteor would be beneath the crater floor.  He purchased the land in 1902 and started mining for iron.  He tried for 28 years but never found the meteor.

Scientists now believe that the meteor melted or vaporized upon impact with only small fragments remaining.    


They also believe that the meteor hit an angle resulting in uplift on the south side of the crater.

The Berringer family still owns the crater and surrounding lands.  They have allowed NASA to train astronauts in the crater and have let scientific research continue.   Meteor Crater is considered the first proven and best preserved impact site on earth.


After exploring  northern Arizona daily, we returned each night to our trailer at Homolovi State Park. We also explored this park.


Homolovi State Park was approved by the Hopi tribe to preserve two ancestral sites they consider holy.  The land depressions above show areas of past looting.


Ancient Puebloans, thought to be precendents of the Hopi, migrated through and lived in the area in the 1200 and 1300s.   Archeological sites at Homolovi contain an estimated 1200 to 2000 rooms.


Some have been preserved by the park and tribe.


Some of the thousands of pottery sherds are placed on rocks for you to see.


So what is a sherd and why isn’t it a shard?  A sherd is a sharp piece of pottery found in an archaeological site originating from the word potsherd. A shard is a sharp piece of china, glass, ceramic or similar.


From another era, there is also an old Mormon Cemetery on the grounds of Homolovi.   Sent by Brigham Young, Lot Smith established the settlement of Sunset along the Little Colorado River in 1876.  It was abandoned in 1888 due to drought and flooding.  


Posted along the Little Colorado in Homolovi  – We stayed away!


There are even wild burros in Homolovi State Park.  And in case you didn’t know (like me) burros and donkeys are the same animal.

I learned some things writing this blog – I love that!

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Way More Than Just Wood Rocks!

Our trip had a rough start.  We knew intellectually we would be trading trailer problems from full time use for problems due to inconsistent use but we didn’t expect so many so fast.  In frustration Randy even said the words “It’s time to sell the trailer.” 

fullsizeoutput_5384Driving to northern Arizona was fine but while setting up I noticed that a rock lodged under our kitchen slide tore the vinyl flooring.   Then our new house based DISH receiver, that was supposed to work with our current satellite dish in the trailer, didn’t.  Randy and DISH technical support eventually determined the problem and the part fix.  

Finally, and most problematic because you can live with a torn floor and no satellite reception, a valve in the water system broke and we were without water.  Randy eventually kluged a fix so we had some water in the trailer while using the pump but it is a very temporary fix.

Most of the next morning was spent trying to run down needed parts.  It took hours but a plan for eventually acquiring the parts emerged so we could go have some fun!

fullsizeoutput_53c8We visited Petrified Forest National Park and found way more than we expected!   We began at a visitor center with an orientation film and museum.   

fullsizeoutput_53a2The museum showed us how this currently barren landscape looked during the Triassic Period, with forests, plants,  fish, dinosaurs and reptiles.  Think Costa Rica because that is where northern Arizona was before continental drift!


The area that is now northern Arizona was near the equator when the land was one continent called Pangea. 

fullsizeoutput_5392Plant and animal life were fossilized through continental drift and climate change.  The forests were buried by layers of sediment absorbing ground water, volcanic ash and minerals.  The minerals are responsible for the varied colors.




Many of the petrified logs look as though someone sawed them into pieces.  A ranger explained that the weight of the petrified logs cause them to break that way.

fullsizeoutput_539dAgate Bridge is a 110 foot petrified log spanning a gully.  In 1917 park personnel placed the concrete support but it is expected to eventually fall due to the stream below creating change.   It is no longer allowed to walk across the bridge.


There are amazing landscapes along the  26 mile park road with overlooks and hikes to explore.  This area is called Blue Mesa.



This area is called The Tepees, showing the layering so prevalent in the park.  There are an abundance of fossils contained in the layers, another of the park’s area of focus.


There are over 1000 archeologic sites related to the ancient peoples who traveled through and lived in the area for thousands of years.  


There are single and multi room pueblos. 


There are petroglyphs and solar calendars. 


See the bird with the frog!

More recently, Petrified Forest National Monument was established in 1906 after a request from the Arizona Territorial legislature.   The CCC worked in the area from 1934 to 1941. The monument gained national park status in 1962.


This is one of the original entrance stations.  Over time these stations were used as restroom facilities and museums.  They now provide a cool breezeway with information placards.

Route 66 went through Petrified Forest National monument and it is yet another area of park emphasis.

fullsizeoutput_53c5Travelers could spend the night or have refreshment at the Painted Desert Inn.  It is now a museum featuring the inn,  route 66 and the Harvey girls but was unfortunately closed by the time we arrived.  Another day….

We had enjoyable hours exploring the park but could have spent days   There are so many hikes and overlooks we just didn’t have time for.   Petrified Forest National Park is so much more than just petrified trees!

One of the reasons the Arizona territory wanted national protection for the area was concern about rocks and artifacts being stolen.  The current park position is to debunk the idea that there was massive theft and vandalism but there were a couple letters on display from people returning rocks.


There are businesses outside of the park selling petrified wood.  There is even a concessionaire inside the park selling items that were sourced from the outside.  The philosophy is that if there is a way to acquire petrified wood legally most people will choose that option.


We did!  

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Wheels, Batteries and Desert Things


We have been settling in to our new desert home. This prickly pear cactus is in our yard.


One of our pleasures is to sit on our back patio in the mornings and watch the wildlife.


The lizards stroll by – sometimes they do pushups!  


We see and hear a variety of birds.  Randy is partial to northern mockingbirds and I like cactus wrens.


The quail have been so much fun to watch.  We are impressed with the way one parent is always vigilant while the family is feeding.  We see families with three to sixteen babies several times a day.   Obviously the turtle in the picture is stone, but the real critters move around the yard with little concern for the others.  They all just share the space.


I try really hard not to get too attached to the cute bunnies hanging around the yard because…


….we also have coyotes in the area.   We haven’t seen one in our yard yet and hope we don’t.



There was very little that needed to be done to the house but we found a few things.  Randy had the garage floor finished with a high gloss epoxy treatment – all the better for those new wheels you’ll soon read about!


Our big project is upcoming.  In August we will have pavers placed and a solid patio cover extending from one end to the other along the back of the house.  We have a south facing back patio and, except for those few morning hours, it is basically not usable this time of year. 

This time of year has some advantages too.  We are getting acquainted with our Sun City Grand community while events and venues have fewer people.  

P1010551Randy has golfed and I have been line dancing, playing the ukulele and joined a new book club.  We have been to resort activities, game nights, Arizona Broadway Theater and a Diamondbacks game at Chase Field.

And for all that activity it was nice to have something to drive besides the big old truck!


All the wheels are in place in our three car, extra deep garage.


It took way longer than we thought it would to find my new wheels – like three months!  I wanted a newer used Audi convertible with navigation, back up camera, and without a black interior or exterior.  It was the no black interior that was the problem.   We searched in four states, bid on a car on Ebay twice, put a deposit on one in Salt Lake City, and finally decided on a 2015 Mercedes Benz E400 right here in the Phoenix area. It isn’t an Audi but we like it very much.


In contrast, we bought our 2017 E-Z-Go golf cart on our first day of seriously looking.  Randy did preparatory research and had things narrowed down to two manufacturers. He decided he wanted a cart with a maintenance free lithium battery so then our choice was between new and a golf course rebuild. We opted for the less expensive rebuild.   We both liked the idea of yellow, harkening us back to Randy’s little yellow BMW roadster (that my mother still owns).   We made choices for accessories and upholstery quite quickly.  Yes, I realize the “interior” is black!   The battery was the big thing.

And speaking of batteries….Shortly after we moved to Surprise our truck batteries had to be replaced.  The salesperson could not believe that they were the truck’s original 2012 batteries.  He said batteries do not last anywhere near that long here because of the heat.

And another battery story….  


It was very bittersweet (think a few choked back tears) to leave our trailer in covered storage at the end of May.   It had been our home for five years and we wondered if it would feel abandoned or was glad to finally get a break after continuous use.


Six weeks later Randy picked it up for a “spa day”  and the 2012 trailer batteries were also dead.  Off to the battery store one more time.  We have definitely learned that heat is deadly to batteries, most don’t last longer than two years in this area.



And yet another battery story!  Batteries expand when left exposed in the truck when the truck is in the sun.  This is our navigation GPS and it still works, even with a puffed out back.


So what other summer desert things have we learned?   That getting hot water for a shower isn’t a problem – especially when you have a solar hot water heater that is always bubbling.   Figuring out how it should work was Randy’s greatest engineering challenge in the new house.  Of course he eventually solved it and it works great.

Getting cold water is way more of a challenge.  If I need to do a cold water wash in the machine I do it at 5:30 in the morning.   Cool or lukewarm showers are problematic.

Overall we are surviving quite well in the desert heat, but only because the house, the car, and everywhere we go is air conditioned.   We also enjoy cooling off in our resort pool a half mile away.  It is a quick walk, bike or golf cart ride away.

We are looking forward to taking the clean and waxed trailer (with new batteries) pulled by a truck (with new batteries) up to cooler elevations for a few weeks.  I’ll write again from there.

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Randy’s Bucket List – Tahiti and an OverWater Bungalow

Randy has wanted to go to Tahiti for eons but it was always too far, too expensive, and then too difficult to leave the trailer and Elko.   When we lost our sweet boy last summer (Elko’s Last Blog) we wanted something to look forward to.  When faced with all the health issues since, we needed something to look forward to!  

P1010026We flew Air Tahiti Nui from Los Angeles to Papeete with free luggage, two meals, entertainment, blanket, pillow and supply bag for our eight hour flight.  

fullsizeoutput_52c1We landed in Papeete, Tahiti at midnight and went straight to the hotel and bed.  We enjoyed a breakfast buffet and free time the next morning.   Tahiti is the largest of the 118 islands in French Polynesia.


Randy made it to Tahiti – bucket list!


We took a short ferry ride to Moorea.


We were quite happy with our garden bungalow at the Intercontinental Moorea.


P1010170Because of renovation work being done far away from our bungalow, we received complimentary dinners in addition to the breakfast buffets.   That was nice because everything in French Polynesia is expensive.  Throughout our stay we were surprised by the number of young couples and families visiting the islands.  They surely have different spending priorities than we did at that age.  Good for them!

P1010056The resort has a Turtle Hospital and Sanctuary.  There are a range of care levels from full human support to minimal support before release.    Two hundred and thirty three turtles have been treated and released since 2004.  


P1010065There were 12 turtles in residence including the mascot Tortilla.  She arrived in 2004 with a severe floating problem caused by a damaged or diseased shell.  She was unable to move effectively and feed herself.  Tortilla is about 60 years old and is a permanent resident.

fullsizeoutput_52bbThere was also a Dolphin Experience on site with three resident dolphins. We enjoyed watching others but didn’t feel compelled to partake ourselves.


A Man and His Dolphin

We purchased a tour for snorkeling with rays and sharks with lunch.  Several tours were leaving from the same dock and, because we speak no French, we didn’t understand where to wait and when to leave.  We were told to watch and follow one particular man.  It was a very humbling experience.

fullsizeoutput_52c8While we (and 30 of our closest French speaking friends)  were waiting to leave, this Brown Booby showed us that he was not intimidated sharing HIS dock with humans!    Thanks to our friend Mark for the bird identification.


We made it on the right boat!  Boat personnel feed the sharks and rays to gather them.


Randy snorkeling with the sharks!


We had our own ray experiences but not quite this close!


Our tour included a polynesian lunch cooked in traditional fashion.


Our captain tried his best to tell us what we were eating.  It was mostly delicious.

 We came back from snorkeling to find most of our tour companions had left!  Our captain was still there.    He indicated we were okay and would go back on a smaller boat.   While traveling we have always depended on someone speaking passable English or our basic Spanish. This was a whole new level of uncomfortable.


The ride back was some kind of beautiful!


Salt water has its perks, like sharks and rays, but we prefer to swim in fresh water pools.


Our complimentary dinner benefit included the Polynesian Dinner Show!  We ate to the tunes of the ukulele and percussion ensemble.  Similar groups are everywhere in French Polynesia.



fullsizeoutput_52d4Chicken varieties are everywhere and help clean restaurant floors immediately.    This one wanted to help us clean our plates!  We enjoyed their presence.

After three nights on Moorea we headed to the airport and Bora Bora.  Our driver spoke great English and gave us a bit of a tour.  Two diesel generators supply Moorea with power costing about $250 a month.  He said island life is expensive for tourists and locals.  People fish and grow a lot of their own food.   He spear hunts for wild boar.


Airplane views of Bora Bora


Bora Bora is an island surrounded by coral reef and smaller islands called the motu.    The airport is northernmost on a motu island so airport transfers are boat rides.  The Intercontinental Bora Bora is near the southern point of the main island.


An iconic image of Bora Bora!

P1010260This is another iconic image!   We kept wondering which of the many over-water bungalow resorts we passed was going to be ours.   Staying in an overwater bungalow was part of the bucket list event.  We learned later that about two thirds of all Bora Bora accommodations are overwater bungalows.

fullsizeoutput_52a3We finally arrived and it was so exciting to go out on the docks and see our bungalow!


Ours, number 38!


I put a black dot on number 38.



P1010275This is looking down into the water from directly above the glass topped coffee table.  The top slides open to feed fish.  It is especially nice when lit at night.

fullsizeoutput_52d7This is the neighborhood view from the upper back deck.   There are two, one at the bungalow level and one nearer water level.  A ladder lets you go from your bungalow right into the water.  And then when you get out, there is a fresh water shower on the lower deck!   


Come on already – Aren’t we going snorkeling?   


They have done a nice job of creating coral stands to attract fish.


And the occasional ray and shark.

P1010313Randy found this nice shell while snorkeling and then noticed it was still occupied. 


He put it near the coral reef under our bungalow but it left us.


The resort provided complimentary kayaks, snorkeling equipment and paddle boards. They also provided enrichment activities like learning to open a coconut.  It’s a finesse move – not force!


We made our own Tahitian crowns!

I learned a variety of ways to tie a pareo and we kind of learned to weave palm leaves.



Mostly the teacher did it for us.


An enjoyable spot for morning coffee.


We had complimentary breakfast buffet late each morning and usually ate just once more. Randy usually opted for typical American breakfast items.  I preferred an eclectic international mix and had it day after day:  Fruit, crepes, bread and brie, and fried rice with corn.


Most afternoons we ended up in the fresh water pool overlooking the lagoon.


Nightly call for Happy Hour!


With no complimentary dinners at Intercontinental Bora Bora, we branched out.  We ate at the nearby Lucky House several times.  They have yummy, reasonably priced pizza.

P1010430Another night we went to the famous Bloody Mary’s.  We didn’t actually know it was famous until we saw the signs of all the famous people who have been there!


This is only one of the signs!


I think this was the first time we’ve ever ordered Happy Hour Bloody Marys!


You order your meal as you enter.  Both the ribs and tuna steak were delicious.


We took a Jeep tour to experience the island beyond our resort area.  Bora Bora is the oldest of the French Polynesian Islands and was created by a volcano.   At the current rate, our guide said the islands will be lost because of rising seas in about 2000 years.


Our guide told us the islands are 95% protestant thanks to missionaries from England arriving  222 years ago.  An earthquake struck the island on March 3, 1797.  When missionaries arrived the following day, the islanders connected the events and welcomed them.


We were shown a variety of flora and this plant is quite special.  The blooms begin the day yellow, change to pink during the afternoon and finish the day red – and then they are done.  The leaves of the same plant are multi use, including stacking for plates and use as toilet “paper”.


This is a water collection station but the water is not drinkable.  Water at a restaurant costs you the bottle rate, usually from Australia.


The building behind this one holds the diesel power generator.  A single generator supplies power for the 10,000 island inhabitants.  Our guide did not remember the last time it failed.

Our guide took us to a family operation making pareos.  We saw how they dye the cotton cloth and use stencils and the sun to add a picture.  I found one to buy!


Alex was a great tour guide!


fullsizeoutput_52dfRemember the map with the island, reef,  and motu?  There is just one way into the interior and because of that Bora Bora became a strategic location for America after Pearl Harbor.  Within a few months American soldiers arrived and built the 22 mile road around the island, still in use today.

fullsizeoutput_52eaThey brought and installed eight cannons around the island but they were never fired.  With only the one entrance, the Japanese never tried to engage at Bora Bora.

Alex said islanders in general have good feelings about Americans and what they built and left on the islands.  Many natives have some American blood because of the soldiers stationed there.  Thankfully, the mixed race children were accepted without issue in Bora Bora.   He said the French came in after the Americans left and at least he isn’t happy about it.   We couldn’t see any visible signs of acrimony toward France in French Polynesia, but we may not have understood it if it was right in front of us either!

fullsizeoutput_52e2We left our overwater bungalow in Bora Bora at 10:30 am on Saturday and arrived in Surprise, Arizona at 6:00 pm on Sunday.  That included some waiting around the pool time and waiting at the airport time but it was still a long trip.   But it was still awesome!! It was well worth the distance, expense and difficulties.

My bucket list trip is a cruise to Norway to see the Northern Lights – already booked for the fall of 2020.  We can only hope it will go as well as Mom’s bucket list cruise through the Panama Canal and Randy’s to Tahiti!

May your bucket list dreams come true as well!

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The Cruise Main Event!

cropped-fullsizeoutput_51a7.jpegOn our 15 day Panama Canal Cruise,  only two days were spent in Panama.  (All the other days are detailed in the previous post Mom’s Bucket List Cruise.)  We met people on our ship who had traversed the canal several times.  We met people who had entered on the Atlantic or Pacific side, sailed a bit and then exited to the same ocean.  We opted for our Panama Canal crossing to be the whole thing – ocean to ocean.  


We were novices at canal crossing but not novices on Panama, at least that was true of my mother.  My parents and brother lived in the Canal Zone for three years while it was still operated by the United States.  They lived on the Pacific side and boated often in Gatun Lake.  My memory of a brief visit there was of seeing a cruise ship in the jungle! This was our opportunity to experience the canal in a different way.

As soon as we boarded the Coral Princess, we started learning about the history of the Panama Canal through lectures and ship TV.   Thoughts of a waterway began in 1513 when Spaniard Vasco Nunez de Balboa walked the 43 miles across the isthmus, the first European to do so.  Many dreamed the dream.  The first sustained effort to build a waterway across the isthmus was by France after their 1860s success building the Suez Canal.

France’ desert based Suez experience didn’t translate well to the jungles of Panama.  The isthmus was rocky, the jungle was thick, and the bugs carried all kinds of diseases killing thousands of workers.  Ultimately the failed project cost France $240,000,000.

Rights to the project were sold to the United States in 1902 for $40 million.   Under the vision, determination, calculation and bullheadedness of Theodore Roosevelt, the US began work on the canal in 1904.  The newly independent government of Panama granted control of the Panama Canal Zone to the US.

The United States learned from the earlier attempt and improved living conditions for workers.  They also determined a single waterway going ocean to ocean was not viable given the terrain.   The US design called for a man made lake allowing fresh water to flow through lock systems on either side of the isthmus to raise and lower ships.   Gatun Lake, the largest man-made lake in history at the time, is 164 square miles in size and 85 feet above sea level.  

The most difficult challenge of the canal project was cutting through the continental divide.  The Culebra Cut, an excruciatingly difficult eight miles, was necessary to connect Gatun Lake to the locks on the eastern Pacific side.


You read that correctly.  Depending on your location, the eastern side of Panama is the Pacific side while the Atlantic/Carribean is on the west.   


The Panama Canal opened in 1914 servicing about 1000 ships that first year.  Two weeks are saved by not having to navigate around South America.

fullsizeoutput_522eThis lecture picture is of an Iowa class American battleship, clearing the canal by a comfortable 11 inches!  The Coral Princess wouldn’t be quite that tight but was built slightly narrower than most cruise ships to be able to traverse the canal.  We noticed the difference right away in hallway width in the cabin areas.   

During the lectures we also were introduced to how controversial the decision to turn the canal over to Panamanian control still is with some Americans.  Our lecturer indicated that the US “occupation” was never meant to be permanent.   President Jimmy Carter signed the Panama Canal Treaty in 1977 and it was narrowly approved by Congress.   There was a period of joint control and then full control was given to the home country at midnight on December  31, 1999.   My parents and brother lived in Panama during that transition period.  They agreed with the decision to return the Panama Canal to Panamanian control.

We sailed into Puerto Amador the day before our actual crossing.  We opted for a tour of the new locks and a boat ride on Gatun Lake.

P1000430 As ships were getting bigger Panama recognized the need to build new locks to accommodate larger vessels.  Panamanian citizens approved expansion by vote.   The five billion dollar project was completed in 2016 doubling the capacity for goods to traverse through.

fullsizeoutput_51c8The new locks use a sliding gate mechanism and also gather 60 percent of the fresh water for reuse as the locks raise and lower ships.  The original locks let the fresh water from Gatun Lake free flow to the oceans as the lock gates are opened.  Gatun Lake depends on annual rainfall to refill the lake and keep the locks viable.

P1000447Our tour also gave us an opportunity to see some of the former canal zone facilities on the Atlantic side.    These former quarters had been restored as a lovely hotel.


There were many more that remain abandoned.


Mom and I were in good position at the front of the bus for her trip down memory lane.  In hindsight it probably would have been more enjoyable for her to get a private taxi to take us to places she remembered.  For Randy and me, learning about the new locks was very interesting.


As we were leaving Puerto Amador on the tender I noticed the Panama sign I should have taken a picture of!  Backwards is better than not at all!

P1000502Our transit day began with a 27 member pilot team coming on board to drive the Coral Princess through the Panama Canal.   This transit cost Princess $330,000 and was determined by passenger count.   They also paid a $35,000 booking fee a year ago to reserve our spot.   The average toll is $54,000 with the largest ever paid being $829,000 for a container ship in 2018.

fullsizeoutput_51caOur first event was to travel under the Bridge of the Americas.  Some of the largest cruise ships can’t go through the canal because they won’t fit under the bridges, even though they would fit in the new locks. 

P1000518As we approached the Mira Flores Locks we saw this COSCO container ship beginning its transit in the new locks.  Over the course of the day I watched its progress.  They made it through sooner, perhaps because there were only 3 ships scheduled to use the new locks that day while 26 were scheduled for the old locks.

P1000555The old locks are two lane, sometimes both ships are going the same direction and sometimes they are going opposite.  


This was our view from our balcony as we approached the Mira Flores locks, the first ones coming from the Pacific side.



A comfortably tight squeeze!  Notice the swinging gates between locks on the right channel.



The Crown Prince of Thailand was present that day and watched our ship go through the Mira Flores locks.


These special electric engines actually pull the ship through the locks.


Mom joined us on our balcony as we approached the Culebra Cut


Crossing the continental divide, the Culebra Cut, photo off our cabin TV.



My parents and brother used to boat frequently on Gatun Lake.  Individual islands like this one were available for lease through the canal zone.

P1000543Over the course of our eight hour transit we passed under two additional bridges and traversed two more sets of locks. We had the option of watching our ship’s progress on deck, on our cabin TV (in the air conditioning) and on the Movie Under the Stars screen.  We did some of each.   We appreciated the commentary by the ship’s destination expert.  He did a fine job with quality and quantity of content.

For a time our transit seemed to be ahead of schedule.  We were sailing right along and then we came to the Gatun Locks on the Atlantic side…


Randy and I happened to be sitting on the port side bow as we went through this last set of locks. We had the perfect view for the fiasco that was taking place on the adjacent lock.


This crane barge got stuck!  Not physically stuck in the canal but it couldn’t move forward because of the crane apparatus on top.  Continuing forward would have wiped out infrastructure on either side.  Somebody made a big mistake!  We got to watch while they moved it forward, drained the water, had to fill the water back in, and then used tugs to move the barge out the same way it came in.  OOPS!


All in all it was an exciting day.  I’m glad my mom’s bucket list trip gave us this unique experience.


And we even got commemorative certificates!

Thanks for sailing along!

Once again, I apologize for the length of this blog – I think it took me longer to write it up than to do the transit itself..Whew!

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 Mom’s Bucket-List Trip

During a discussion about potential cruises, my mom Beverly mentioned that she really wanted to go on a Panama Canal cruise.   My parents and younger brother lived in Panama during the early 80’s.  (Randy and I were in college and getting married during those years but I did get my wedding dress in Panama.)   We booked a fifteen day ocean to ocean cruise on the Coral Princess.


We met at the Los Angeles airport and went through an easy transfer and embarkation process.

fullsizeoutput_519dRandy and I once got a complimentary upgrade to a balcony cabin,  a smart move by the cruise industry because now it feels like mandatory accommodations to us.  My mom opted for a very spacious inside cabin and that too was very comfortable.

Princess uses their “Love Boat” history to advantage.  The safety video playing in our cabin when we arrived featured former cast members.   Ship TV had Love Boat reruns showing intermittently.

Our cruise itinerary was Puerto Vallarta Mexico,  Huatulco Mexico,  San Juan del Sur Nicaragua,  Puntarenas Costa Rica, Puerto Amador Panama, Cartagena Colombia,  and Ft. Lauderdale Florida.

Of course, there were sea days interspersed and we enjoyed those too.   Mom connected with other mahjong players and even learned to play Chinese mahjong.   Randy enjoyed rest and recoup time on sea days and looked for dolphins, turtles, flying fish and the occasional ray from our balcony.    I went to Zumba classes and sang in the Princess Pop Choir.


Princess Pop Choir just prior to our end of cruise concert in the atrium.

fullsizeoutput_5201Another sea day gave us the cruise director, executive chef, and head maitre’d in a cooking demonstration comedy routine followed by a tour of the galley.   We learned there were 200 tons of food brought on board for our 15 day cruise.  The kitchen serves 20,000 meals a day for guests and crew.  They use 4000 eggs each day.  Approximately 7000 assorted rolls and pastries are made fresh and served every day.  Four tons of fresh vegetables are prepared and served each day.   A crew of 385 people make and serve food on the Coral Princess.   Passenger capacity is about 2000.


We took a Princess sponsored shore excursion at each port. Our first was in Puerto Vallarta and our tour spent way too much time on tequila.  No worries, we still love Mexico!

fullsizeoutput_5236The next port, also in Mexico, was Huatulco where the guide spoke frequently on the safety and cleanliness of the community.


Our Huatulco tour was to Capalito, an archeological site.

fullsizeoutput_51a9Afterwards, we had some beach time and lunch.


Randy’s coconut shrimp!


Can we assume the mice and rats were scared off the ship lines?

P1000292Our next port was San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.  We had memories of the Sandinistas, the Contras, the Iran Contra-Affair and Daniel Ortega and didn’t have high hopes for a stop in Nicaragua. We were so wrong! 

Daniel Ortega is still president and there are still challenges – only 29 percent of kids finish elementary school.  Yet, there is resurgence and a budding tourism industry.  Our guide told us about support from the European Union, including solar panels so more people have rudimentary electricity.


We went to the old city of Granada, founded in 1524. We learned that the size of the roof tiles vary between buildings because the tile makers used their thighs as a form.


We took a ride on Lake Nicaragua, the second largest lake in Latin America.




There is a crocodile there!


On the return drive we saw oxcarts along the highway.  They were returning home after a month long pilgrimage to a small church in Rivas where they worshipped at a recovered/restored statue of Jesus.  Pilgrims trust that their efforts will be supported by fellow countryman along the way with a place to park and perhaps some food.

And from Nicaraguan history –  Tennessee native William Walker arrived in Nicaragua in 1855.  He led a war effort and promptly appointed himself president in 1856.  Several Central American countries united to drive Walker out of Nicaragua and he was executed in Honduras in 1860.  Our guide was pretty neutral on much of Nicaragua’s past trauma but not on Walker!

Opposite our low expectations for Nicaragua, we had high hopes for Costa Rica.  We know people who go there repeatedly.   We knew from our ship’s destination lectures that literacy rates top 98 percent and that Costa Ricans are rated, along with Norwegians, as being the happiest people in the world.

The Costa Rican government puts much effort into environmental science and became, in 1994, the first country to get to 98 percent renewable energy.  We know eco-tourism is huge here, so why was there so much trash along side the roads?  

P1000393Our tour involved a river cruise and a rainforest tram – with opportunity for wildlife viewing.   

P1000399We saw this termite nest and that was about it.  Fortunately we had seen monkeys, birds and crocodiles in Nicaragua!   Perhaps we’ll have the opportunity to visit Costa Rica again someday and have a better impression.

Our next stop was Panama but I will save everything Panama for the following post.  

Given that we were wrong about Nicaragua and Costa Rica – who knew what to expect in Colombia!  We knew they had a painful past with drug cartels near Managua, the country’s capital, but knew nothing about Cartagena.   It ended up being our favorite port on the trip!  It was also our first time in South America!

P1000649 Much of the trip we felt our starboard side cabin was the “wrong” side, but in Cartagena it was great for watching extensive dock works with cranes moving shipping containers around like puzzle pieces.  

fullsizeoutput_51e6Our tour took us out in the harbor for views of the modern city and the Virgin Mary statue that was destroyed by a lighting bolt in 2015.  Her pieces were later retrieved and restored. 


Do you remember the secret service agents that had some inappropriate behavior prior to an Obama visit? That happened in the “stair step” hotel on the right.

P1000683We also motored by the Old Walled City, a UNESCO Heritage Site and Cartagena’s big attraction.  Then we got to go inside!

P1000697The port of Cartagena was active in the slave trade, with persons being bought and sold on this wall just inside the city gates.

P1000707There were several old cathedrals inside the walled city.  I’d love to come back and explore the old city further someday!

P1000731This building was started too close to the walled city threatening its UNESCO World Heritage Site status.   The building was abandoned and will likely be torn down.  The mayor who approved the project is in jail.


We also saw the Fortress of San Felipe de Barajas, built by the Spanish to defend “their” riches  from pirates and other countries.


The Fortress came under attack five times during the sixteenth century.


Each day in port, as we prepared to go back aboard the Coral Princess, we were met with cool washcloths and flavored water.  That was great since it was usually hot and humid.

fullsizeoutput_51e2  Concerning other drinks, I enjoyed the “Isaac,” named for the bartender on the Love Boat program. 

IMG_3634One of our favorite activities throughout the cruise was a late afternoon drink in the Crooner’s Piano Bar, specializing in martinis with personalized shaking service.  The pianist assisted with dancing/shaking music.    


Randy ordered a Milky Way Martini and it became my drink of choice throughout the cruise.  There is chocolate in that martini!

fullsizeoutput_51a4During our bus transfer from the airport to the port, mom sat right behind friends Larry and Patti.  Larry worked with my dad years ago.  We all marveled at the unexpected meet-up and spent pleasant time together throughout the cruise.

IMG_3647We watched a few movies on the Movies Under the Stars screen.  The technology is amazing because the screen is bright and sharp day or night.  During the day they show  Discovery channel video (no sound) and in the evening there are movies with blankets and popcorn!

P1000833Of course there was lots of entertainment on board including the Voice of the Ocean competition.  Several people from the Princess Pop Choir were in the finals.  Mom and I enjoyed the process and the final show complete with the turning red chairs.

At the end of our cruise, we docked in Ft. Lauderdale many hours before our flights went west.  We opted for an airboat tour to fill time and have a convenient way to get to the airport.  It ended up being quite interesting!


fullsizeoutput_520fWe enjoyed the ride through the swamps and mangroves and seeing a few gators but most interesting was when our guide told us about being a member of the Python Apes.  


Air boat captain on the weekends, volunteer Swamp Ape Monday through Friday!

Burmese Pythons are a big invasive species problem in the everglades.  Former python “pets” being released was problematic but the real crisis occurred when thousands of pythons escaped a breeding facility during Hurricane Andrew.  With no natural predators, pythons are wiping out native species and even eating alligators.

Swamp apes search for three species of pythons.  When found, some are euthanized and others are genetically modified through a University of Florida program to render them sterile and then released.

P1010013Of course there was an alligator show –  educational not confrontational.

fullsizeoutput_5219Randy though I should hold the baby so our grandson could have a picture of his “Beema” holding the alligator.   I was surprised how cool the alligator’s underbelly felt.

Overall it was a great trip.  Fifteen days was a good length.   We wouldn’t have been ready to get off in one week but were ready to move on after two.  It was strange to tell people we were from Arizona (instead of Idaho) but it felt natural by the end of the cruise.

If you read this to the very end, thank you.  I apologize for the length but we did cover 15 days, 4,562 nautical miles and three continents!

Next time:  The destination itself – The Panama Canal and crossing.

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