“Boring” Amarillo

One thing that keeps me most grounded so that I can continue to write dark fiction is traveling. I love to travel to new places, small

Amarillo, TX

places, little known places. The places where you find the tiny hole in the wall places and best experiences that keep you alive and loving life. In truth, it’s the only way to write about the dark, to know that the light is out there somewhere, too.

When I told coworkers and friends I was going to Amarillo, they asked why. I said, “Because I’ve never been before.” Apparently that’s never a good answer. I began to wonder if I had actually said, “I want to eat your children,” because of the horrified look they each gave me individually. But I set out to prove them wrong.

Helium Monument, Amarillo, TX

And I did. Images of our trip are peppered herein. But I realized in writing this post exactly why I do what I do and travel the country looking for the long lost hidden gems that nobody knows, or cares, about. That reason was alluded to a moment ago.

I write dark. I write dark because my mind lives in the dark and macabre. I used to enjoy this in a disgusting masochistic way. Now, I actually dislike “going there.” But it’s both what entertains the reader and what I know.

Going to new places and feeling new things is a (hopefully) more healthy way of “feeling” rather than

Palo Duro Canyon

cutting myself or other harmful psychotic actions I’ve used in my past. Traveling to the middle of nowhere where my ears scream for sound (I have tinnitus apparently) grounds me in the real. I don’t take many pictures because it’s amazing to live in the here and now. For decades I lived in the past and the made up futures that played out in my head.

If you want to know anything about the images/places you see, ask. Otherwise, simply share in the joy that is their reality.




Traveled to Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

Six million years ago, this national monument was born. And what a sight it is. There are two hiking options when you get to this spot. It’s only an hour from Albuquerque and about 30 minutes from Santa Fe, so an easy drive. And none of it is off road driving unless you attempt to get to the Veteran’s Overlook. The overlook was great, but after walking the more difficult of the two hikes, I was a little tired to take pictures.

You start by walking up the side of this volcanic and igneous rock hill. Once you get to the base of the more difficult hike, you end up hiking through a slot canyon. The walls are probably at least fifty feet over head. 

 Below are two of these tent rocks with rocks sitting atop the tents. These two tents can be seen from the parking lot 2.5 miles down the hill.

Southern New Mexico: Day One of Three Day Trip

Since we were off the grid during the entire trip, in full disclosure, we’ve returned from our trip already.

Starting in Albuquerque, we drove with the White Sands National Monument in mind. All we knew was we had three days to find stuff…Everything else was a bonus. As we drove southward, we stumbled upon a prairie made entirely of volcanic rock, otherwise known as Valley of Fires. It cost $5 cash. We had a $20 bill. So we continued on our way, but we intended to see it on our way back through at the end of our weekend.

Next up, we stopped by the Three Rivers Petroglyphs site. Home of more than 21,000 petroglyphs, and apparently an ancient Mogollon village site. For those who don’t know what a petroglyph is, it’s ancient markings by natives. Nobody has a clear understanding as to why the markings were engraved on rocks. But most theories have the markings used as trail markers. Being so close to a village (or more likely several villages), these particular petroglyphs were likely religious and artist based.

 Of course I can’t, and didn’t, take pictures of all 21,000 petroglyphs. But I did take pictures of some of the more impressive sights.

You’ll notice that not all these carvings are ancient. Though I’m not claiming that Europeans traveling through in the early 20th century are disrespectful by carving into these same rocks, I did find it interesting. Notice the  images carved by ancient Pueblo people. The are of masks, animals, and what are most likely religious symbols (the sun cut into fours and the squares that snake together). It’s interesting to see what the two different cultures decided was important to share with future generations. The European traveling through wanted everyone to know their name, the ancients cared about rams, camels (yes, camels…that was news to me too), and religious symbols.

This is the forth petroglyph site I’ve meandered through. The second to last image above is particularly interesting to me. Notice the symmetry and perfect of its lines and curves. That is highly unusual among these and all other petroglyph carvings I’ve come across. This probably speaks to the advancement of their artistic, and therefore advanced, nature. The better and more advanced art is in a culture tends to be directly linked to a cultures technological advancement. I assume it’s because of the society’s increased leisure time.

Heading in the opposite direction of the petroglyph site, we found a Mogollon village site. As with most (more recent) village sites, it is unexcavated to maintain preservation. But, there were hundreds of pieces of pottery laying about.

As much as we wanted to take at least one piece, we left it all there. That did not stop us from collecting shards and placing them under local fauna. This allowed us to live vicariously as archaeologists but without disturbing the site and still leaving everything as we found it. For the record, we also did not dig anything. We simply looked for pieces that came to the surface naturally.

The white on black pottery is unique to the Mogollon people. Having been to at least a dozen different ancient ruin sites, this one had more treasures like this than any other. It was so much fun. And, as always, we picked up garbage left behind by hikers. Leave it better than you found it…

Next up, headed further south and westward to Alamogordo, NM for the world’s largest pistachio. Touristy, I know. We weren’t planning on seeing this site, we just stumbled upon it as we drove through.

Pistachios have never tasted so good! Not this one obviously. It’s made of anything BUT nuts. But inside the souvenir shop, there was local pistachios for sale. No salty flavor and so much flavor I could cry. This pistachio can be found at the McGinn’s Pistachio Tree Ranch in Alamogordo.

By the time we finished with our nuts, we had only about 30 minutes of sunlight left. So, no White Sands. We drove on to Las Cruses for lodging and food. For food we found a great brewery I knew nothing about, which is ALWAYS a great find for us.

High Desert Brewing Co. had the feel of a true small town dive bar. A dozen tables, no hipster atmosphere, the beer was quite good, and the food was great and cheap. The wife had a Peach Wheat (very peachy but very smooth and drinkable…a tough combo to master) and I had a Brown Ale (hoppy and bubbly but bordered on a nutty flavor… definitely worth a try). The best part was the price. Most brew pubs think too highly of themselves and charge a lot for their brews. At High Desert, you can get a pint for $4. Not bad at all.

This ends Day One of our tour of Southern New Mexico. Hope you enjoyed it half as much as we enjoyed traveling it.

Chicago’s Best: Uncle Chach

Having traveled to many small town and big town places around much of the country, I live for the few moments out of life when you meet that special someone. Sometimes it’s a small restaurant in Glendale, Wisconsin where a husband and wife make most everything from scratch (Irina’s Kitchen). Other times it’s a small town history museum in Nunn, Colorado where the locals ask you to a BBQ just for being in the area at the time the meat was coming off the grill. And then there’s Uncle Chach in Chicago.

I generally steer clear of popular places. They tend to be too cookie cutter for me. But when in Chicago, you have to eat Chicago style pizza.

Pizano’s Pizza has a few locations throughout the Chicago area. The pizza isn’t bad. I can’t say I love it to death. But in terms of pizza, this is great pizza. I still have a special place in my heart for Johnny’s Pizza in Brooklyn, Connecticut. But that’s not why we went back to Pizano’s this past week. No, we went to see Uncle Chach.

Really our uncle? Not biologically. But ask me in person, and I’ll tell you I got family in Chicago.

Sad part is, I don’t even know how to describe this amazing man. He’s friendly, he’s personable, he’s outgoing, and he’s straight Chicago style guy.

When he found out we came from Colorado and New Mexico just to see him, he stayed and chatted with us even though it was a busy night. He told us so many stories that neighboring tables stopped chewing to listen in.

My father and law and I still quote Uncle Chach since we met him three years ago. Need a hand with something? “Absolutely!” in real Chicago accent and attitude. Got a problem with me? “Tell’m Uncle Chach said he’s OK in my book!” Want to compliment me? “Hey, if anyone asks, I don’t know nothin’!”

I’ve only found a handful of servers or owners that have quite pizzazz and friendliness that comes naturally from Uncle Chach. If you’re ever in Chicago, please, I beg you to go to Pizano’s Pizza 864 North State Street. Even if you don’t get Uncle Chach, if he’s working, you’ll get to witness him. Because that’s what you do, you WITNESS him.

Thoughts and queries on our trip to Grand Canyon

You might be thinking to yourself, “What a fricken buzz kill this Rene is. Why doesn’t he just enjoy the beauty around him while he’s miles from civilization?”

To which I ask, why does one go on such trips?

Some go on “vacation” to sit in a hotel room drunk off their rocker. Occasionally, they’ll venture off into the strip malls around whatever hotel they’re staying in. For many that’s fine. These sorts of vacations are for those who hate their jobs and come home exhausted and hating life. Their vacations are trips to escape the world they feel trapped inside with no control over what happens to them.

Since we love our jobs and generally enjoy life as a whole, our vacations are more like trips than what others consider a vacation. Our trips are a time for searching for new things to see, learning new stuff, and of course, my nerdy favorite, soul searching.

This most recent trip was a very eye-opening experience for several reasons.

First, I learned that I love nature and solitude. If I believed in God and Jesus and all that came with it, I would drop everything and become a Franciscan Monk, traveling the world helping those less fortunate and finding happiness and perfection in everywhere I went. Hence, I need my own Walden Pond with which to gain such solitude. After that, I can figure out how to help others less fortunate.

Second, we learned that we love the benefits of serious hiking but we are too wet behind the ears and just generally too city-slicker to perform the hikes we WANT to do. Note to self: grow a pair and just hike. We may end up THOSE hikers who require rescue…or worse. But we’d have had fun.

Third, people require very little when it comes to recreating history in the winner’s favor and people care very little for things they do not understand…or care to understand. This is the conclusion to all the grumbling you’ve read in the last few posts.

Ideas of what identity is, who’s history matters, where identity comes from, and how we view ourselves and others, was what I studied in graduate school. I understand why it happens, how it happens, the outcomes from when it happens. Still, no matter how often I see it up close and personal, it floors me.

We use words like “Navajo” which means “thief of cultivated land”, we call ancient cities “ruins”, as late as the 1960’s US citizens made natives wrestle for silver dollars, the US govt kicked natives off their land to allow businessmen to graze cattle and kill the land, US citizens call the parks “national monuments” and I heard more than one patron to the park call it “their canyon…that they shouldn’t be here” (referring to what they assumed were Mexicans).

This is why I write the fiction I write. I hope at least one person reads my stories and thinks to themselves “Wait a second, I do that…I’m a dick!!!! But I can change…” I don’t expect the world to change overnight. Frankly, I don’t expect the world to change…period. But that doesn’t mean I should stand back and watch people act as they do.

Day 6: Grand Canyon Happens

That is not to say that on the sixth day we created the Grand Canyon although I’d love to take credit for it. What I mean to say is that, any time someone asked me what I planned to do on my trip, I always said “We’re hoping to make it to the Grand Canyon, but there’s lots of other things we want to see on the way…so, if we get there, we get there.” On day 6, we got there.

It was a relatively short trip from Flagstaff at about 80 some odd miles. The drive up was fun though. I saw at least 2 hawks (which was a welcome difference from the countless ravens…which are the Ponderosa Forest equivalent of pigeons just about 50x larger), 1 alien mutilated cow (no proof though), a dead wolf, an elk sitting in a field, and a group of elk on the way back.

At the Grand Canyon, we proceeded to take the tourist tour of the South Rim. We realized at this point that what we love most about the Southwest and all the canyons available is the solitude that come with them. That said, we found very little about our experience at the Grand Canyon very exciting. Its tough to get all “look at the natural Majesty possible on earth” when you’re excusing yourself for stepping on the foot of the old lady behind you.

True story: While we stood at one of the South Rim overlooks basking in the splendor, I hear someone saying “Wow isn’t it gorgeous?” followed by “Mommy! Look! A helicopter!” Yes, kid, you’re 75 miles from civilization peering down at one of earth’s most spectacular naturally occurring features and all you can say is, “Oh, look! A helicopter.” You might think I’m just grumbling. But everyone else in the group started barging in, “Where? I don’t see it!”

*Face palm

There are no helicopters in the images below. For that, I’m sorry.

If you want a helicopter, watch the local news!

One of our favorite parts of the Grand Canyon visit was not the canyon at all but the “Watchtower” on the far end of the South Rim. It is what it sounds like, a circular tower built to resemble the old granaries built by ancient pueblo peoples in the area. It’s interesting that the ancients used the towers as granaries, but the archetect named it a “watchtower” and built into its base a heartwarming souvenir shop…representing trade and abundant …no, I made that representation bit up. It’s totally hokey.  It’s what’s inside the tower itself that’s amazing.

The watchtower’s innards are lined with massive murals painted by one Hopi descendant. It tells the story of a Hopi tribal leader and his son (upper left quadrant). The son wants to know where the river to the Grand Canyon leads. His hope is to find the fabled man who speaks to snakes and has unlocked the secrets to asking the snakes for rain. The entire village comes together to build him a canoe (upper right quadrant). He drifts down to the sea where he meets the man who speaks to snakes.

The man shares his secret with the leader’s son. While there, the son also meets and marry’s a woman (lower right quadrant). They walk the whole Colorado River back up to his village with the power of rain and speaking to snakes (lower left quadrant).

There were many other stories and belief systems strewn across the watchtower walls. From the twin black war gods to the marriage of the son and the woman to the men in the moon and sun to the god of fertile crop production.

What made this all so much more fascinating was that the day before we went to the Grand Canyon and saw these beautiful murals, we met the grandson of this painter!!!! The grandson is a transient artist and guitar playing busker in Flagstaff. NO KIDDING!

He told us the story of the murals, of their significance and of his grandfather painting them. Could not have been cooler if he grew wings and flew into the sunset.

Day 5: Sedona, Sliding Rock, Jarome, downtown Flagstaff

Today I had an Epiphany. I realized I need my own Walden Pond.

Since we decided to drive toward the Grand Canyon to see much of what the Southwest had to offer in terms of sights, we’ve been told we have to go to Sedona. Having now been there, I must confess myself disappointed. It’s an artsy fartsy town that’s too expensive for its own good. Stranger than the fat tourists who appear more interested in shopping for souvenirs than basking in the natural beauty of the surrounding area is witnessing a town full of fat tourists with almost exclusively well-equipped jeeps and hummers caravaning through these movie theater streets filled to their brims with picture shooting tourists snapping images of other tourists taking photos. Many of these jeeps are pink or other pretty colors, adding to this bizarre mix.

The jeeps are part of the countless tour companies willing to drive lazy asses around to all the natural sights…for a hefty cost of course. Most jeep tours cost between $300 and $400 PER PERSON! That’s half the cost of a monthly payment for one of those jeeps. Much of what we drove to and saw for free would come tied up in that jeep tour package. We hightailed it out of that town ASAP.

We would NOT recommend Sedona unless you were interested in driving to the middle of nowhere to struggle with parking just to go to an overpriced mall.

While driving down 89A, the scenic route from Flagstaff that runs through Sedona and all the way down to Prescott (pronounced Pres cit), our eyes were met with a wonderful rock formation. Pulling off to the side of the road we found, Sliding Rock just 5 miles north of Sedona.

Being spring, this waterhole was not very busy. We hiked along the river for about a mile before heading back and watching the kids play in the crystal clear naturally formed water park.

I don’t have any pictures of Jarome or Prescott, but the drive through Jarome was the type of drive you only read about. Not only were the views absolutely mind-blowing, but the steep climb with twists and turns made it all the more breathtaking…literally. If you’re ever within 100 miles, it is completely worth the drive. But it is not for the weak willed.

Downtown Flagstaff is the sort of nerdy travelling we are used to. We heard there was a self guided historical tour map somewhere. So we hit the Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce and found said map. It was getting dark and I was not as interested in taking pictures as I was in learning the history of the town.

What did we learn?

Flagstaff was originally a lumber town. The town is smack dab in the middle of the largest Ponderosa forest in the world. It was founded in 1883, I believe. Within 10 years, a massive fire to rival Chicago’s famous fire tore through the city’s downtown area, destroying most buildings which were of course constructed of wood.

The Babbitt brothers built many of the buildings both before and after the fire. Today, the Babbitt’s are still a prominent family which includes Babbitt Ford dealership.

Today, Flagstaff is mostly a college town housing Northern Arizona University. Their mascot, the lumberjack, is in large part a throwback and homage to the city’s lumber roots. But, that’s not the entire story. Flagstaff was the very first recipient of the now infamous Muffler Man Lumberjack, a fiberglass statue. Many similar statues can be found throughout the country including right here in Albuquerque on Central and Louisiana.

That very first lumberjack Muffler Man now stands proudly on the grounds of NAU. A smaller replacement of the Muffler Man stands in front of Granny’s Closet beside a red tractor you can’t miss right on Route 66.

Day 4: Sunset Crater & Wupatki

I came down with a severe case of allergies that nearly ended our trip 3 days early, so this update is a day late and a buck short. But tough! This blog is free!

We spent the day entering into Sunset Crater, which, by the way, is NOT A REAL CRATER! It’s volcano that blew its top some 900 years ago. Its top is all sunk in, but you can’t climb to the concave peak. So what’s the point?! 

There’s still other stuff to see. For starters, the lava flows that volcano left behind are bizarre, moon-like alien worlds of black jagged piles of rock in every direction for as far as the eye can see.

Wupatki: A national monument that butts up against Sunset Crater. Wupatki is another set of ruins of native peoples from about 1100 AD.

While at the visitor’s center, we read one of the exhibits that stated that natives who still lived in the ruins or around the ruins were forced to leave when the US government decided the ruins were “national”. Too bad the nation the land actually belonged to didn’t matter.

What’s worse? The largest ruin, which conveniently sat just behind the visitor’s center, was reshaped, reconstructed, and manipulated to “withstand human contact” and “better preserve the integrity of the site”. Not only, does the US claim sacred places as its own national treasure while stealing it from those with rightful ownership, bit it desecrated that same property to fit the enjoyment of paying customers.

The reconstructed, manipulated, displayed ruin

In the 1930s, “entrepreneurs” were allowed to come onto this US protected land to take and sell found pottery. Today, customers are called thieves and heavily fined if they take pottery they find. In the 30s natives were told to pack it up so US citizens could enjoy the beauty without all those dirty natives screwing it all up. At the same time, rich ranchers were allowed to graze cattle on that same protected land…until 1989!

While at one of the more secluded ruins, Melanie and I just sat quiet. We watched field mice scurry around in search of seed, lizards roam the desert floor, and listen to the mice eating their finds in the canyon below. Yes, it was that quiet.

We discussed how people could be so heartless as to displace or murder entire people just because their life or very existence is “inconsistent” with the money interests of others. We wondered what such a tranquil and quiet place was like when it was a bustling city of more than 2000 inhabitants.

Needless to say, we have a very different view of life and the world at large since we started our trip last weekend.

Day 3: Painted Desert & Winslow, AZ

Lost count of our mileage today. Somewhere in the vicinity of 200 miles though.

Two big stops today.

Painted Desert and the petrified forest was fun. The buttes and mesas were not as tall and numerous as those in the Badlands in South Dakota. However, the colors and petrified trees far outweighed the lack of quantity. Bright pinks, vibrant blues, loud purples, punchy oranges, and desert greens and browns were eye catching to say the least.

I really REALLY wanted to take some stones. But since the fine for taking anything was $325, I thought it best to leave everything where I found it.

Then we went to Winslow, AZ. Yes, that Winslow, AZ, from The Eagles song “Take it Easy”. And yes, I stood on the corner!

Then we walked around La Posada Hotel. It sits on the sight of an old Harvey House and has a great collection of art inside that anyone can visit for free.

From Winslow, we drove straight through to Flagstaff, an old lumber town gone university Hipster town. We got here too late to see much. But we did find out there are 4 breweries in town and lots of century old buildings to explore just here in town. So, of course we hit Flagstaff Brewing Co. on first day here!

Then we topped it off with frozen yogurt…Maple Bacon Donut flavored frozen yogurt!!!!! Well, I did. Melanie had all sorts of normal kinds like Raspberry and other boring flavors.

Day 2: Canyon de Chelly

Another 300 added to the tachometer brings us to Canyon de Chelly (pronounced Chey) before stopping to rest in Holbrook, AZ.

Canyon de Chelly was absolutely gorgeous. I recommend traveling the north rim which “only” has a few outlooks. The south rim is teaming with thoughtless arrogant rich city slickers interested in ignoring the natives or asking them to jump through hoops for their own amusement.

We would have loved to walk the base of the massive colorful canyon but it costs about $90 per person as it is Diné reservation. We balked on that front.

As beautiful sight as it was, much of the beauty was overshadowed by the realization that our wealth and position was directly related to the torture, killing, and constant robbing and reneging of promises of the native peoples. The Diné live in squalor and sell goods to rich folk who don’t even look them in the eye as they pass them.

While we were at one of the overlooks on the south rim, there was a boy selling paintings on slate from the canyon floor. Some old white woman, who probably meant well, started talking to the boy. Then she handed him a card, asked if he wanted to be somewhere else and stated that the number on the card would get him the English education he needed to make something of himself.

I was happy to hear the 6th grader say he was happy here and that he wanted to grow up and stay where he was. I thought to myself, I wish I was that mature at his age.  Then she walked away without buying one of his paintings.

I stepped up next. Asked how his day was. He jumped right into his sales pitch of I’m selling this stuff to pay for school supplies. I asked how school was going. He had some AIMS test coming up. When I asked, he said his family lived up the road on the Res. His family had land up here and in the canyon. He also did tours of the canyon base. But his family was hoping to catch a few more wild horses for the tours.

I purchased one of his cuter paintings. As he ran back to the truck to sign the back for us, Melanie had to run to the car to cry. I just told the kid it was the wind and allergies bothering me.

We spent the rest of our time in the canyon hating ourselves, our ancestors, and wondering if there was anything else we could do…

Romano the 6h grader will hold a special place in our hearts and minds.

For the record, Diné is what Navajo call themselves which means “people of the gods”. And that word we know so well “Navajo”?? It loosely translates in Spanish to “thief”. I learned this while sitting in a Burger King just outside the canyon. I stopped eating, I felt so sick.

I hate people. Except Ramone.