Flagstaff, Arizona is the perfect base for visiting the Grand Canyon and the Grand Canyon International Hostel is the perfect base in Flagstaff because of its excellent, central location. I was hoping to take one of their tours to the Grand Canyon but I was lucky enough to hook up with the delightful Vanessa in the morning who had a car.
We headed out around 9, stopped to pick up lunch snacks and arrived at the south rim of the Grand Canyon around 11.
It’s important to have a plan when visiting the Canyon because it’s, well, big. We did not have a plan. Thank gods for off-season travel though. We found parking right away and headed to the Visitor’s Center for advice. There were no lines and we got the undivided attention of one of the many friendly park rangers on duty. He sorted us out right quickly with an itinerary that included a short hike into the canyon along the South Kaibab Trail to the Ooh-aah point and then a return to the shuttle buses to various lookout points, ending up at Hopi point for the sunset.
The shuttle system was complex. Neither of us exactly understood the ranger’s instructions on which buses to take to avoid having to hike eight miles back to the center. “I don’t seem to understand human talking anymore”, said Vanessa sadly. I had to agree as we pored over the maps.
First stop was the lookout point closest to the Visitor Center, Mather Point. Nothing and no one can prepare you for the waves of red rock that stretch to the horizon..
Eager for a closer view, we hopped the shuttle to the popular South Kaibab Trail which winds down to the Columbia River. A plethora of signs warn visitors against trekking down and up to the river in one day which it never occurred to me to do anyway. The trail was gentle and sandy which was good because I was unused to starting a hike by going downhill. The views?
Left to my own devices, I probably would have hiked down to the next lookout but I realized later it would have messed up the afternoon’s sightseeing. There were so many vantage points from which to soak up the canyon’s majesty!
We hopped the shuttle bus, getting off at each stop up to Mojave Point.
And then finished up the day with a view of the sunset from Hopi Point.
From New York to Flagstaff, Arizona by train? People said I was crazy to do it. Why not take a plane? I wanted to see the country!
The Lake Shore Limited
The first leg was New York to Chicago on the Lake Shore Limited, an overnighter. Although I could have checked my baggage straight through to Flagstaff for free, I wasn’t sure about the weather and wanted access to my suitcase in case I needed to take out more clothes. As it turned out, there was plenty of space to store luggage in the train as the car was far from full.
Tip 1 There is no access to checked luggage during the train ride. Bring any luggage onboard if possible.
I settled into my seat beside the window and was pleased to note that the reclining seat was wide with plenty of legroom. There was also a footrest, overhead storage and a pull-out section under the seat to support the legs. It was like a la-z-boy recliner.
Tip 2 There is no assigned seating. Get there early for a seat by the window.
We set off on time in mid-afternoon to head up the Hudson River. As the sun sank in the sky a golden light glinted off the river on one side and illuminated the stunning fall foliage on the other.
The glorious colors mesmerized me for the roughly 3 1/2 hours it took to reach the sleek but nearly empty Albany train station.
There, we had a stop long enough to look around the neighborhood and even grab a drink at this stationside bar.
By the time we re-boarded, dusk was turning to night. No more scenery!
I struck up a conversation with my new seatmate, a young woman well-equipped with a blanket, pillows and food. She had set off from California months before on a vague cross-country train odyssey that involved working periodically in rehab centers and the Salvation Army. She was headed as slowly as possible back “home” to rejoin the fiancé whose cellphone calls she glanced at and ignored.
Unlike airplanes where everyone is tense and slightly irritated at being in a cattle-car, conversation is easy on a train. Strangers are happy to chat.
I munched on a sandwich and read the news as the Lake Shore Limited has a wifi connection.
Eventually I pulled out the blanket I copped on the flight to New York and my neck pillow. After arranging the seat it was quite comfortable enough to sleep.
Tip 3 There’s no bedding provided for coach class. The car is somewhat underheated making a blanket necessary.
I woke up to a drizzling rain around Toledo. I grabbed a coffee and noodle soup at the cafe rather than an expensive breakfast in the dining car.
Tip 4 There are two dining options: a restaurant with sit-down service and a cafe for snacks. One is incessantly reminded via the loudspeaker that restaurant dining needs to be reserved.
Passing through grey and rainy Ohio, the cornfields were dusky and the trees a dull yellow. I listened to the local news and learned that Naloxone was now available without a prescription and that a man called the police to report that his marijuana was stolen.
Passing through Indiana via Waterloo the cornfields gave way to woods and a succession of lawns. Radio from Fort Wayne interspersed the Top 40 with ads for pre-owned cars, cheap diamonds and the University of Saint Francis. An interview with a spiritual counselor advised how to help people who struggle with being gay. “Sit with God”.
Near Gary Indiana, whitecaps danced on a steely Lake Michigan.
We pulled into Chicago’sUnion Station about an hour late. I grabbed my luggage and decided to spring for the elegant Legacy Lounge which stored luggage for only $2 more than the luggage lockers. Plus there were drinks, snacks, TV, spacious restrooms and priority boarding.
Amazingly enough, Chicago was cold and windy. Go figure.
The law requires that all first-time visitors to Chicago must chow down a deep-dish pizza. I complied at Beggars Pizza, picked up a gigantic muffin and whole-grain cookie and boarded the Southwest Chief for the 30-hour trip to Flagstaff, Arizona.
The Southwest Chief
Amtrak’s historic Southwest Chief replaced the famous Santa Fe which opened up the west by linking Chicago with Los Angeles.
We left in mid-afternoon for the flatlands of Illinois. Just outside Chicago was Naperville, recently named the second-best place to live in the US. Its qualities were unapparent from the train.
We sped by grain silos, warehouses, fields, row houses and ranch-style houses lonely in their little yards. Roads fled from the railroad track in neat rows.
Finally we crossed the border into Fort Madison, Iowa where I was excited to see the Mississippi river just in time for sunset. So wide and placid, the river conjured up the spirit of Mark Twain. How he would have carved up this sad election year with his mordant wit.
As we sped on into the night, I headed to the dining car. No one eats alone on Amtrak. I took my seat next to an extremely well-coiffed California brunette from the sleeping car. A plump African-American woman that I thought had a bizarre air about her sat opposite us with her teenage son. I was mortified to realize after a few moments that she wasn’t bizarre at all but nearly blind. She wanted to see as much of the world as possible before her sight deserted her completely. She was also involved in social work, helping veterans with eye damage. When I mentioned where I live she remarked that it must be a calm and peaceful place. I replied with a reminder of the gruesome attack this past summer and immediately regretted it. She looked so stricken I thought she might cry. “Of course I remember now. I’m so, so, so sorry”. She wanted to know if there were grief counselors for the survivors and I reassured her that there were. Such a kind, gentle soul.
Dinner was a thoroughly respectable veggie burger with chips and salad but a bit pricey at $13. At the end of the meal the server started cracking jokes about Donald Trump and the table laughed which was the only time on this entire trip I heard anyone laugh at his name.
I read and listened to music for a while as there is no wifi on the Southwest Chief and the cell signal is sporadic. There are plenty of chargers though.
Woke up the following morning in time to pass into Colorado.
We made a 15-minute stop in a chilly La Junta where one of the passengers entertained us with her hula-hoop which she “takes everywhere”.
It’s black cattle country now. I headed to the comfortable observation car with plush seats and panoramic windows to watch the increasingly spectacular scenery. This first video with the Rockies in the distance was taken in and around Trinidad, Colorado.
Crossing into New Mexico, we made a short stop at Raton, New Mexico where, according to explanatory signs, the railway brought railway workers, immigrants and coal miners into traditional Native American communities.
After the endless grain fields and prairie of Colorado, it was a relief to see some green in the landscape. Cattle were rare.
Las Vegas, New Mexico had a particularly striking train station.
From Las Vegas to Santa Fe the scenery became particularly stunning with tall pines and distant mountains on the left and a rolling plain on the right marked by mesquite and red gorges.
The train track passed next to faded houses and mobile homes surrounded by yards full of old cars, stacks of wood, discarded appliances, tires and miscellaneous junk. Accustomed to the European countryside, it surprised me that there were few to no attempts to landscape or otherwise prettify the property.
Around Glorieta tall pines sprouted dramatically across the ever-changing landscape. I felt as I was watching a movie, too beautiful to pry myself from my seat. Little Lamy was adorable. As we hurtled to Albuquerque, the craggy plains were dotted with isolated settlements of humble houses and more junkyards.
We made a long stop in Albuquerque but not long enough for me to find appealing snacks to bring back on the train.
As night fell, I decided to splurge on spinach and cheese tortellini in the dining car, grateful that there were vegan and vegetarian options.
We pulled into downtown Flagstaff at 8.51pm, right on time. Truthfully, I was sorry to leave the train after such a comfortable and relaxing journey.
As there was no parking around the monastery of Saorge, I couldn’t do my planned hike to Chapelle St Croix, so I parked down here at Balise 161 and took a wide track that curved around a gorge.
It was an easy walk as the path sloped gently downwards.
It was beautiful but definitely not a hike for summer as it faced directly south.After about a 1/2 hour I followed the sign to Chapelle Sainte Anne which took me up a fairly steep and extremely narrow path. It was a bit overgrown but I kept following the yellow markings until I got to the top a little breathless and more than a little sweaty.
No Chapelle Sainte Anne, but a nice shack with some shade and a fair amount of flies. I couldn’t find the path to the Chapelle Sainte Anne and was getting hot so I set about heading back to Saorge.
The path was narrow and descended slightly. Finally I got to Balise 163 which pointed me back to Saorge.
Here is a view of Chapelle Saint Croix.
An easy and very sunny walk brought me back to the Franciscan Monastery with this splendid view of Saorge.
I woke up to clouds and the hint of rain in Mestia. As beautiful as the region was, I was glad I decided to head south. The guest house arranged a minibus to Zugdidi that left around 9.30 for the beautiful and scenic ride that wound around the mountains for about 3 1/2 hours..
Arriving in Zugdidi around noon, I immediately hopped another minibus to Kutaisi. Two hours in a crowded bus passed slowly especially as the scenery was a monotonous spread of one small farm after another. Unlike the hardened, slim farmers in the Svaneti region, these people were uniformly obese.
Tired and hungry, I debated whether or not to overnight in Kutaisi but fortunately there was another bus to Akhalksikhe leaving almost immediately. I grabbed a Pepsi (no Coke Zero in this country) and homemade cake and boarded the old, rickety bus.
I arrived completely exhausted but the family who ran Hotel Almi greeted me like their long-lost cousin.. I checked in wearily and headed to a beautiful room with hardwood floors.
The hotel had a restaurant that conjured up a delicious dinner which I devoured in their pretty garden.
When I woke this morning, the overcast sky clarified my thinking. Do a day trip to Ushguli! An overnight that involved staying at Berdia’s brother’s hostel would be too complicated. It turned out to be the right decision.
I met Jenna and her husband (the Chinese couple) down in the main square with a minibus driver who appeared at the guesthouse, presumably at the bequest of the owner. He was hoping for more passengers so we waited a while. I had a cup of tea but around 10 I pushed it. We arranged a price (150GEL) and set out.
For about a half hour we cruised along a paved road. Then, that stopped and we were on a potholed track that went on and on for another 2 hours. I can’t say it was incredibly scenic at first. Mostly we were winding through a series of valleys and gorges. Also it was raining off and on. At a few points I was able to take a photo or two of a village and there was certainly plenty of cascading water. And oxen.
Finally the vistas opened up and the first of Ushguli settlements appeared: Murqmeli. It was immediately impressive.
Farming is done the traditional way.
Then we got off at Chazhashi.
The idea was to explore and see if we could find the museum. No luck. The place was nearly deserted. We rousted a guard from his nap who pretended to be interested and then went back to sleep.
We were able to marvel at the unique Svan towers up close. These sturdy 9th-century constructions were designed to protect villagers from their enemies whether foreign or from the next village.
We drove a little farther to Chvibiani where the driver parked at the entrance and we sat down for lunch in a local inn. The highlight of the dining room was this magnificent carved Svan “Man’s Chair”.
Then Jenna and I set out to explore the village despite the light rain and an extremely muddy track. No matter. We were entranced. There’s just no place even remotely similar and it’s so remote! Notwithstanding the ordeal to get here and the ancient, crumbling buildings, Chvibiani was clearly the most developed village with a sprinkling of guesthouses and notional “streets”.
Besides the towering peaks on all sides, what was there to see? Pust churches! The church with a screaming mouth.
There were very, very few people around as we walked to the highest village, Zhibiai and the 12th century Samaria church.
For a few brief moments, the clouds parted to enchant us with a glimpse of the beauty and strangeness of Svaneti.
For the descent it rained steadily.
So given the rain, the mud and the uncertainties of transport, I’m glad I didn’t try to stay a night but still it’s a magical place, not least for the unbearably dramatic backdrop of steep mountains that rose at a 90 degree angle, with cows grazing on the green carpet. Then the snow- capped peaks to top it all off. And the black-clad women, gnarly old men and farm animals everywhere. It was worth crossing Europe to see.