DESERT VIBRATIONS

A glance toward the fuel gauge interrupted my enchantment. After our scare in West Texas, we had agreed to stay above 1/4 tank, and I alerted J that I'd be stopping at the next gas station to be safe. Cell reception was nonexistent in this remote stretch, but GPS alerted us to a number of nearing towns. We reverted back to taking in the breathtaking scene surrounding us. A closed general store situated at a crossroads made up the entirety of the town of Cima. Elora was a modest industrial plant of some sort. With the needle moving rapidly lower we came upon the railroad crossing that was the town of Hayden. Our humor was evaporating in time with our gas fumes.

LEARNING TO LIVE IN CUENCA, ECUADOR

Much like our old home, Pittsburgh, Cuenca has just over 300,000 residents, 3 rivers, and a surplus of bridges. Most of the similarities are what you would expect from any city of comparable size, and most of the differences are negligible. We can work on the language issue, and we're pretty okay with being taller than most people. Our best stories happen when we're off the map, and getting lost continues to be part of the fun. After a few months in Cuenca, we've created a list of some of the more notable differences between here and your average US city.

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL THEME PARK AND THE DAM SCAM

The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is the Disney Theme Park of the National Parks System. The village boasts a rail line, airport, entire fleet of buses, kennel, mule stable, hotels, restaurants, art, geology, and cultural museums, campgrounds, three visitor's centers, two entrances, and a partridge in a pear tree. Much like Disney, it is also perpetually mobbed. In an act of providence, we were able to secure the last site available at the Desert View Campsite the day before it was to be shut down for the winter. We pitched our tent below an exquisite, craggy juniper and made our way to the Desert Watchtower.

A BARTENDER WALKS INTO AN ARCH, THE SECOND ONE DUCKS

National Parks Pass in our hot little hands, we set out through downtown Moab, marveling at the idiosyncrasies and contradictions of the tourism-based economy. We had a specific loop planned out for our tour, hitting a few vistas and stopping at the Sand Dunes Arch. Even within the small span of the park the landscape was constantly changing from sheer red rock walls to rolling hills dotted with juniper to gray, green and yellow dunes, frozen in time.

NATIONAL PARKS ARE COUNTING ON US ALL TO THINK RESPONSIBLY

Take heart, gentle traveler, for there is a way to mindfully take joy in the true national treasures of the United States. The men and women protecting our parks are fighting an uphill battle to protect us from ourselves, and we can help them. Follow the rules posted on the clearly posted signs. They are meant to protect both you and the wildlife. Place trash in proper receptacles. They're everywhere. Adhere to the trails. The maps are free and comprehensive. Do not try to steal the limited, federally-protected nature. Basically, don't be terrible.

DUNE IT WELL

As we bombed down the highway towards White Sands, we could eventually see a thick, white ribbon slicing across the ruddy leather-colored floor of the valley that opened up before us. The mountains at the far end were so far away they sat on a flat plane, a deep blue silhouette. The scenery was stark and stirring. With everything so visible for miles all around, your eyes tend to play tricks, and with the speed limit so high, the distances seem to melt like candy in the sun. We stopped in Alamogordo for some sandwiches, then headed off past the airbase and the missile testing range before finally arriving at White Sands.