The biggest rip off in America

24 05 2015


Because there has to be one, right? And I found it.


Step right up to the world famous four corners.

Step right up to the world famous Four Corners.

Four Corners is an arbitrary point on planet earth where four U.S. states meet – the only spot like this in the lower 48! – because surveyors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries decided it should be so. And thus created the crappiest, biggest rip off imaginable. For the geographically challenged: Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona (clockwise, starting in the upper left-hand quadrant) are the fantastic four we are talking about here.

The actual point of interest, called, appropriately, Four Corners, is where these four states meet. It is situated on a piece of land belonging to two native American tribes, the Ute in the northeast, and the Navajo everywhere else. The drive to the “national monument” is up a dirt road on Navajo land in New Mexico. The entrance fee is $5 per person. There is no printed information or map (as one would usually receive when, say, entering a National Park run by the Department of the Interior) but rather a tourist brochure dated “Summer 2012.”

Once inside the fenced-in enclosure (be sure you don’t throw out an axle on the pot-holed muddy driveway) this here is what people have come all this way to see.

Yep, that's it.

Yep, that’s it.

Around this arbitrary point on the ground are amphetheater-like rows of benches and low balconies, one in each of the four states, so that tourists can have themselves photographed with whichever of the four state names and state seals they wish – or all of them! (And sit as they watch others be photographed.) Beyond the benches, on all four sides, are stalls with hawkers hawking original Native American arts and crafts (Made in China?) and food that would give you (and your cardiologist) a massive heart attack. I did not visit the outhouses so I can’t report on their ambiance and cleanliness or lack thereof.

It’s a place where someone a long time ago said: “If you build it, they will come… and they will even pay good money for the privilege.” And they actually, do come in droves for the opportunity to pay $5 a head in order to stand in line to get themselves photographed with their two feet in four states simultaneously. Or doing a pushup, with each limb in a different state.

How… um… exciting.

From Mr. Dodge to Durango

21 05 2015

Crossed Colorado from upper right to lower left, from the Midwest to the Southwest, from tornado country to the peaks of the San Juan Mountains. On our coast-to-coast trip, this is the state in which we have spent the most time and seen the most stuff. I love it. I want to move here.

Interesting. "Colorful Colorado."

Interesting. “Colorful Colorado.”

It started on a hopping Friday night in a downtown Denver burger joint with another total blast from the past. My 10th grade history teacher (I date myself… it was 1984) retired to Denver about a year ago after spending more than three decades in Singapore teaching at an international school. I last saw Mr. Dodge in 2006, when I was there myself on business.

Mr. Dodge is a very popular guy and I am thrilled that I got into his agenda with just two days’ notice. He shared my Facebook post about our meeting on his own timeline and that post got more likes than I actually have FB friends.

Stops along our colorful trek across colorful Colorado included Boulder, Vail and Durango, all places I could see myself setting up shop if I had endless resources and did not have to rely on an employer for a regular income. They are charming, eccentric, beautiful and weird in their own ways. We met a blizzard in the Rockies, but as I understand it, that is nothing unusual for this time of year.

Durango and Silverton, a traditional Old West settlement in the mountains, are two of the most adorable towns I have ever seen, with old-style small-town main streets offering everything from saloons to yoga studios. The majestic hotels date back to the days of splendor and riches brought by the mining industry and the railroad, funky boutiques with unique jewellery and fashions, fine restaurants which serve only locally-grown ingredients, and of course the obligatory establishments for your recreational drug-consuming needs (since 2014).

The Grand imperial Hotel in Silverton.

The Grand Imperial Hotel in Silverton.

We didn’t leave Colorado till we struck gold ourselves, at the Ute Mountain Casino and Hotel in the far southwestern corner of the state. We walked in expecting to drop about $150 for a room, dinner and blackjack. We walked out the next morning – having slept, eaten and gambled well – $100 richer than the day before. It’s been a while since we made 250 bucks that fast and easy.

“Alperose” in Colorado

19 05 2015

I have never crossed the Rocky Mountains on land, so therefore I have also never actually physically been in the Rocky Mountains prior to this trip. (I have skied in Lake Louise, but that’s in Canada, so it doesn’t count.) But every October I watch the World Cup ski races from Beaver Creek, which is, for all intents and purposes, Vail.

So when we planned an overnight pit stop in Vail, I was thrilled to finally be able to see what a Rocky Mountain ski resort actually looks like. And, well, it kind of looks like… a ski resort in the Alps, just lots bigger. Here we are in the center of the continental United States and I had no idea I had landed back in Europe. We have “Austria House” next door to a hotel called “Sonnenalp”, which houses a restaurant called “Swiss Chalet”. I have not seen this many Swiss flags since I left the Confoederatio Helvetica more than two years ago.

Ode to the Confoederatio Helvetica!

All this alpine glory (and I will be honest, Vail is beautiful… I wish I could afford to come here during ski season) made us truly hungry for the Old Country. So for dinner we stopped in at “Alpenrose” and chowed down on Wiener Schnitzel with Spätzle followed by warm and heavenly Apfelstrudel.

Oh boy... Yum!!!!

Oh boy… Yum!!!!

Many of you may simply associate the word “Alpenrose” with a bucolic high Alpine meadow, and the cute little flowers that are the definition of clean air, water, nature and… wholesomeness.

I, however, having spent 9 years living in Switzerland, tend to associate it with Swiss rock singer Polo Hofer whose 1982 song by the same name (sung in a Bernese Swiss German dialect, understandable only to those who have grown up speaking it, like my husband, who translated it for me) has become a de facto national anthem. It is played/sung/karaoke-ed at pretty much every festival/concert/birthday party/wedding/graduation/funeral in Switzerland.

It tells a fairly simple story, really: A summer love between a hiker and a lady-friend, set on one of those bucolic mountain meadows amid those cute little flowers. When the fall comes, it starts snowing and she takes off. And every time he looks up to those Alps, he remembers her and wishes it wasn’t so.

As we finished up our Apfelstrudel in Vail, I almost half expected to see Polo himself walk out of the kitchen crooning, “Alperooooooose chöme mir i Sinn…..! Alperooooooose sy das gsy denn…. Alperooooooose müesse das gsy sy….. Wo näbe üs im Höi gläge sy!”

Four dudes on a mountain

17 05 2015

Wow. I mean. Wow.

How… monumental. How very… American.

Four white guys on a mountain.

We finally made it to Mount Rushmore, tucked in the Black Hills in southwestern South Dakota. A pain to get to, but worth the effort.

The cockamamie idea to carve massive 60-foot heads of four presidents into the side of a South Dakota mountain was born in the 1920’s in the midst of this continent’s golden age, and it took something like 25 years to actually bring it to completion. Hundreds of workers, hanging from ropes off the side of the mountain, blasted, chiseled, hammered and shaped the granite into the faces we see there today. It was both a sculpting and engineering feat that was pretty impressive for the day and age in which it was done (without computers and sophisticated programs). The memorial was not actually dedicated until 1991.

(Nononono, at the time it never occurred to anyone that there should be anything other than four white guys… Women, Native Americans and people of color were not up for nomination. Come on. It was the 1920’s.)

For those of you not versed in U.S. presidential history, the four dudes are (from left to right): George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln – all presidents who did something monumentally positive for the life of this country for which they will be remembered. Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, Washington kind of pulled it all together right after his army kicked the Brits out, Lincoln freed the slaves and Roosevelt was an early voice in conservation and established the National Parks System.

And these creatures here were the main beneficiaries of that. Aren’t they spectacular?

Aren't they spectacular?

MMMMHHH… munchmunchmunchmunch…

Two buddies just chilling out.

Two buddies just chilling out.

Thank GOD there were wise people around back then who literally saved the bison from extinction.

Welcome to the great wide nothingness

15 05 2015

It’s only when you try to drive across this continent that you realize just how darn big it really is. And if all you are doing is watching the miles tick down on your GPS, you will truly go nuts. Or fall asleep.

(Unless you are driving in South Dakota, where the speed limit is an unbelievable 80 mph/128 kmh. It is wise to pay a little more attention to the road when traveling at that speed plus 10%…)

Lots and lots of space.

Lots and lots of nothing.

So it’s lots of fun to look out for the sign along the side of the highway that tells you that you are about to cross into a new state. They are quirky, colorful and tell you a little something about the place you’ll be spending the next few hours of your life in.

At the outset of our road-trip, we planned to cross into 16 states and one Canadian province (which could easily be a state as far as I am concerned…). Here are a couple of these “Welcome to…” signs we found so far, not necessarily in the order in which we passed them.

Didn’t it used to be “Yours to discover”?

And Mount Rushmore was indeed a highlight.

Maybe a little too much information to digest while speeding by at 65mph?

Simple, straightforward. Kind of like Kansans.

Everyone’s claiming rights to Lincoln now??


There’s a river and a sun in Missouri.

It says something about independence but it was the middle of the night and we were already exhausted.

Sweet. The good life.

Yes it is.

Wow… the people of Iowa welcome me personally! Imagine that!