Dawn Patrol at the Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque

October 6th, 2013 by livingthelife

Brrrr…It’s 5:45 AM and 37 degrees in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Lights from vendors brighten our path as we weave our way through the sea of people to the sound of loud speaker announcements. The Dawn Patrol on the first day of the 42nd Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta has been slightly delayed due to the breeze.

Reluctantly I hand over $4.00 for a cup of coffee hoping it will return circulation to my hands and warm my cockles. Word blasts out that all but one ballon in the Dawn Patrol is ready to launch so we move as quickly as we can through the crowd to reach the gigantic grass field.

All of us here are privileged. This is the only hot air balloon festival in the world where observers can walk all over the field and right up to the balloons while the balloons are being set up and launched.

About twelve balloons make up the forerunner group known as the dawn patrol. By watching their early launch the other balloonists get a sense of wind direction and speeds at different altitudes. As dawn breaks the official Fiesta balloon takes the lead and launches to the tune of the National Anthem as it trails a large American flag beneath its gondola.

Whoosing flames add heat to each balloon. Slowly the remaining Dawn Patrol balloons take flight. It is a exciting sight.

We are here attending the WBCCI International Balloon Fiesta Special Events Rally along with 199 other Airstreams. The rally centers on the local event and has prime, (although no hook-ups) VIP parking adjacent to the balloon field.

More coming soon on the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta and the rally.


Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico

October 4th, 2013 by livingthelife

Three long-legged dogs wandering the dusty street in Zuni Pueblo come over to check me out. When I speak kindly, two of them go on their way. The large tan one decides to make friends and tag along with me as I take a few photos of the Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe Mission.

Back at the well-used van at the side of the Mission Fred and Sherry Niiha our Zuni tour guide wait for my return. As I approach a woman appears on the otherwise vacant street. She holds up a plastic bag with small inlaid silver earrings to see if I’m interested. Suddenly a man follows suit showing me his mother’s beaded handwork. I buy a small beaded pin cushion figure–I mean, it is for his mother.

It is estimated that about 80% of the residents at Zuni Pueblo are artists or crafts people. From trinkets to exquisite finely crafted inlaid silver jewelry, this community is rich with native talent and tradition. A myriad of stores sell their wares. Some sell on tables at the visitor center and others sell from their homes.

Sherry our guide is a jewel in herself. Her knowledge and patience with our questions adds the richness of experience I seek. I want to know more about the Zuni. Already fascinated by their talents I want to know more about their culture. Sherry cheerfully obliges.

We sit in the mission with Sherry and chat. Phenomenal murals adorn the upper parts of the walls. I purchased a photography permit for the pueblo, but we are not allowed to photograph inside the mission, in large part due to those murals. Sherry explains that the murals represent sacred ceremonies of the Zuni faith. She shares that her father is a key leader in that faith. I’m impressed with her reverence to the faith and traditions of her people. Sherry is teaching her children the Zuni ways and they speak the native language as well as English.

Curiously, in addition to the Zuni murals, the chapel retains the Stations of the Cross and the Madonna and Child left there by those of the Catholic faith. It is a curious mix. I ask if the two faiths blend and she says no. The chapel is no longer an active place of worship but is open to those with an official tour guide.

I ask Sherry if the Spanish were kind or unkind to her people. She said Spanish people decided this mission needed to be built here in 1632 and they decided they would mandate the Zuni tribe to build it. They built the mission on top of native burial grounds and required the Zuni to attend the Catholic services. Sherry answers my questions as a matter of fact but I can only imagine the sadness in her heart over this time in the history of her people.

On the way back to the Visitor Center Sherry stops for me to photograph the traditional outdoor wood burning ovens still in use today. She likes to put a meal in at night so it will be ready for the next day. She laughs and calls it a Zuni crockpot. To me the ovens look a bit more like small earthen igloos.

A gentleman in a store suggest we have a hamburger at the Halona Plaza before we leave town and gives us directions to the place. We enjoy a tasty burger in the back of this local grocery and the lady that serves it is as friendly and personable as Sherry. We dine at the vinyl covered table next to the paper products.

Merely passing through Zuni Pueblo on New Mexico State Highway 53 would not likely invite you to stop. The buildings are reasonably typical reservation fare, and the shops vary from nicely maintained to not so very. But to merely pass through would be a mistake, for to do so would be to miss totally the culture and personality of a proud and ancient people.

This is a small community. Before we leave I go back into the Visitor Center to ask Sherry one more question. Taking off the Zuni earrings I purchased in Albuquerque several years ago, I show her the signature on the back and ask if she knows the artist. She smiles and says, she’s my cousin.

So if you go to the Zuni visitor center ask for my new friend Sherry. Don’t just take a passive tour of the buildings. Seek to know the treasure that is the people and their culture.

As we leave, three long-legged dogs are wandering in the street.

Old Zuni Mission

Old Zuni Mission

Zuni ovens

Zuni ovens

Take Me Back

October 1st, 2013 by livingthelife

Trucks wiz by, cars jockey for position, and red lights stop our flow. Worse yet, signs and buildings clutter the landscape and distract us from nature. We are back in a city.

Give me the drama of the red Vermillion Cliffs or the open spaces of the sparsely populated plateaus. Take me back to the intrigue of Mesa Verde or the grandeur of plunging canyons. Let me breathe air that smells of the North Rim pines rather than auto exhaust. Take me back to a people who are one with nature.

Take me back.

2013 Balloon Fiesta Albuquerque, New Mexico

September 29th, 2013 by livingthelife

We are working our way to the Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque where we will attend the WBCCI Special Events Rally held right on the Balloon Fiesta grounds.  The Fiesta is a huge public event but the rally is sponsored by the WBCCI Four Corners Unit.  This will be a first Balloon Rally for us and we can’t wait!

Since 200 Airstreams have been confirmed for the rally we are wondering if any of you are among the other 199 Airstreams that will be there.  If you’re going, please leave a comment so we can look for you!

Airstream Bonding Over a ’65 Caravel Airstream

September 27th, 2013 by livingthelife
Ed Richards and his 1965 Airstream Caravel

Ed Richards and his 1965 Airstream Caravel

Hats off to Ed Richards for his extensive work on a 1965 Airstream Caravel. We had the pleasure of meeting Ed at an overlook for the Kaibab Plateau on Rt. 89 in Arizona while traveling from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to Flagstaff. A fellow east coaster Ed is from Quincy, Florida.

Over a period of two years Ed breathed new life into this ’65 Airstream with a frame-up remodeling including adding a gray water tank. Airstream bonding once again took hold as we stood at the overlook with Ed admiring the shine on his 48 year old aluminum beauty. Soon we were no longer strangers and Ed was inviting us in to see the interior that he had gutted and re-worked.

Ed’s long-term devotion to the project reflects more than a passing fancy with his Airstream. My suspicion was confirmed when he opened the Airstream door. Yes, this man is an Airstream aficionado, for right there staring at me from the magazine rack was the latest edition of Airstream Life magazine.

The Journey through Monument Valley

September 26th, 2013 by livingthelife

“You can’t travel but the first four miles,” says the woman with the soft voice at the entrance to Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. “Yesterday’s rain damaged the road.”

“You mean the 13-mile loop road is closed?” I ask in disbelief. “Yes,” came the reply.

Not wanting to miss anything, I feel crestfallen. Driving through Monument Valley was large on my list of travel goals. We buy our tickets committed to seeing what we can. Launching forth we zip over the smooth roadway into the parking lot. Passing the lodge we search for the dirt road that will take us off the mesa and into the valley. We find it, turn right and enter another world.

Our new red Tundra eases over a blend of washed out road and rock as we bounce and weave our way downward into Monument Valley. For a moment I wonder if we made a mistake coming in our own truck. After all, this is a rough dirt road that recently took a pounding from the rain.

Fred points out how much rougher the ride would have been in one of the open-air tour vehicles where the bed of a pickup truck has been adapted with bench seats. Not only do we have comfortable seats but we also have the freedom to stop and go at will. Plus we can get uncrowded photos and we can take our dog Katie.

Once down the hill and into the valley the dirt road improves for a while. It’s about 7:45 in the morning and we rejoice that there are just a few other vehicles on the road. We ride with the windows open much of the time to enjoy the pleasant September morning air.

Everything is red—buttes, mesas, the desert floor. We pass the memorable Mittens, two almost mirror buttes that, well, look like mittens. Scrub brush and rocky terrain cry out for John Wayne or the Lone Ranger and Tonto.

The scene around us is the quintessential western movie set. Not really a valley in the traditional sense, this is a vast desert floor with giant oddities of nature adding intrigue to the distinctly western flavor of the place.

A corral of horses marks the turn to John Ford’s point where native women have set up tables to sell handmade jewelry. According to the woman at the gate, this stop represents the end of the road for us today. Yet we watch as a couple of tour trucks continue onto the loop road we had understood to be closed. Fred chats it up with a local man who is confident that with our high clearance vehicle we will be fine to continue on the loop. Not to be denied, we venture forth.

Yes the road narrows and is at times hard to find amid the ruts but oh what a journey. Moving deeper into the Valley we make a large circle around Rain God Mesa. Memorable places such as the Totem Pole, a very tall but narrow spire, and Elephant Butte that really does look like an elephant, are now forever etched in our minds. Only the road leading to Artist’s Point proved impassable. Yet I’m sure Fred must have earned some sort of merit badge for his flawless driving through muck and rut, over rock, and even through a flooded area.

They say to plan on two hours to travel and view these 17 miles. But two hours fades to three as we soak in the magic of the legendary Monument Valley. Though not allowed to venture far, I trudge through sand and kneel on rock to capture humble photos of scenes made famous by Hollywood.

By the time we leave Valley Drive the traffic has increased notably. Japanese, French, German Dutch and Americans are among those who sit shoulder to shoulder on tour truck benches to venture into the land of the wild, wild, west. Some wear face masks to guard against the red dust. Others sport hats to guard against the sun. All come with cameras and smiles.

Driving up the rough road out of the valley requires a take charge attitude and a little more rattling and jostling than our 11 pound dog finds comfortable. She climbs in my lap and leans close seeking reassurance.

Not surprisingly our adventure left our truck a new shade of red. Fred washed the truck, but I’ve yet to clean the red dust from just inside my window. Silly I know but it makes me smile.

A man on horseback adds the finishing touch to our Monument Valley experience.

A man on horseback adds the finishing touch to our Monument Valley experience.


Four Corners Monument-Mud and All

September 23rd, 2013 by livingthelife

We are in the middle of nowhere. But this is the heart of the somewhere we came to see. The rain has stopped so we decide to detour a few miles to see the four corners monument that marks the spot where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah meet. After all, we are here to tour the larger four corners area.

Friends had told me before we left home that there wasn’t much to see there other than a marker designating the only place in the USA where four states meet. But hey, we are in the neighborhood so why not stop in and see the place. Little did we know.

Little did we know that the paved part of the parking lot was tiny and full. Little did we know that the rain had turned much of the road and the rest of the parking lot into a giant mud pie. Little did we know that it would be hard to find a place to turn around with the Airstream behind us, let alone a place to park.

Yet, we were there. So Fred threw it in park on the entrance road (people could pass us) and we trotted through the mud toward the monument. I only slipped once but managed to stay upright.

Once to the monument, we found pavement and just enough time for me to grab a shot of Fred with his feet in four states before it started to rain again. I stuck the camera under my rain jacket and wondered about the wisdom of having paid the entrance fee.

In all fairness to those who operate the monument, which is on Navajo land, there were clear signs of attempts to make the monument a friendlier place. New facilities had been constructed and road equipment was on the job while we were there.

Going there seemed like a must, since this is our Four Corners trip, but Fred was happy when we managed to get the truck and trailer back to the paved highway. Some experiences just turn out better than others. At least we saw the heart of the country we came to see-—mud and all.

Fred at the Four Corners Monument

Fred at the Four Corners Monument

The Million Dollar Highway and Silverton, Colorado

September 21st, 2013 by livingthelife

After the heat of the Utah desert the mountain town of Durango, Colorado is a pleasant respite. We trade our shorts for jeans and carry a light jacket to wander in and out of the shops of downtown dodging the occasional drizzle. I’m on a mission to find a lovely piece of silver jewelry but nothing strikes my fancy. Poor Fred.

We camp right by the tracks of the famed Silverton-Durango tour train but alas we decide not to take the train. Our dog has evidently been bitten by a spider somewhere along the way and it has turned nasty. It is necessary to take her to the veterinarian. We manage to get an appointment at 2:30 PM. With a comfortably early departure we have time to drive to Silverton, Colorado and back before her appointment.

Green is a refreshing color after the extensive khaki and red of the desert. Tall lean evergreens are accented by the white trunks of scattered Aspen. Further up US 550 the Aspen disappear, due to the altitude I suppose. Alpine meadows with scattered trees take over the scene as we continue to climb in altitude. Dramatic mountain views explain the road’s label as the Million Dollar Highway.

Stepping out of the truck at the Molas Pass outlook we are greeted by a chilly 52 degrees. An altitude of 10,899 feet will do that. Being flat-landers we pace our steps and breathing to adjust to the thinner air. Carved by glaciers about 15,000 years ago, the ups and downs of the San Juan Mountains literally and figuratively take away our breath.

Three miles of steep downhill grade await us as we head on toward Silverton. We round a curve to find free range cattle standing unconcerned in the road and mindlessly stopping traffic in both directions for a few minutes. Curve follows curve as we descend to Silverton’s altitude of 9,305 feet. Though lower than Molas Pass we are still about 3000 feet higher than Durango.

By driving ourselves we miss the hubbub of train tourists and enjoy a peaceful walk through Silverton’s late Victorian era stores. We think of Alaska since the main street is the only paved road in this old silver mining village. Lunch is at a place called Handlebars Restaurant and Saloon and it exudes every bit of the character the name suggests.

I love it in this valley. Mountains embrace the place and colorful storefronts speak to a time gone past. What’s more, the town delivers on my silver jewelry which is quite befitting for a town called Silverton.

Renee and Fred at Molas Pass on the Million Dollar Highway in Colorado

Silverton, Colorado
Silverton, Colorado

Moki Dugway–Utah

September 18th, 2013 by livingthelife

We giggle and laugh out loud. We are one with the red cliff as we grin through three miles of pure delight–or terror depending on your point of view. We are traveling the Moki Dugway.

Dugway pretty much describes how this narrow, very serpentine gravel and dirt road was made. This part of US 261 in Utah was dug out of the rock in the 1950s and used for hauling uranium ore. It is not for the faint of heart or those uncomfortable with heights. Trailers are not allowed.

When the paved road gives way to gravel and dirt at the beginning of this adventure we round a corner to an overlook dead ahead. (Dead may not be my best choice of words!) In all of our travels we have never seen a panorama spread so far and wide.

This is indeed an adventure—short but intense. Pieces of the edge of the road have washed away on both sides in places making the road one thin lane. Perhaps this was aggravated by yesterday’s rain. With a speed limit of 5 MPH we navigate 10 % grades and dramatic switchbacks all the while dodging fallen rocks.

Other than the pullout at the top of the Moki Dugway there are no guardrails. A sheer 1000 foot drop on one side of the truck is balanced by jagged red rock wall on the other side. And yes, as narrow as it is in places, it does accommodate two-way traffic. One of you may just have to stop and snuggle the rock while the other passes.

Photos really don’t do this experience justice. “Oh my, this is crazy,” is followed by spontaneous laughter and the undeniable joy of being one with the mountain. Hitting pavement again at the bottom was almost disappointing. With the spirit of a child I looked at Fred and said, “Let’s do it again!” He laughed.

Have you traveled the Moki Dugway? Feel free to comment about your experience.

The Moki Dugway in Utah

The Moki Dugway in Utah

It Never Happened in a White Box

September 16th, 2013 by livingthelife

The thirty-something year old man picks up his pace dashes into the road in front of our truck, raises his 35mm SLR camera and shoots. Camera still held to his eye he moves across the road still shooting photos of us…well, of our Airstream. This kind of thing never happened when we traveled in a motorhome.

Fred is pumping fuel into the truck. A middle-aged man avoids eye contact with me as he circles on foot around the front of the truck. He seems not to care that I know what he is doing. He sizes up the subject, raises his camera, and shoots…our Airstream. His friend, now emboldened, says something in German and follows suit. Click, click, click, he gets several photos to satisfy his aluminum bullet curiosity.

A woman with an instamatic camera approaches us in the campground and requests permission to photograph our silver home. We hear it all of the time…”Look at that!” “How much does one of those cost?” “Those things are so cool!” “Love your Airstream.” “What year is that? It sure looks new.”

And so goes life with the Airstream paparazzi.

Our Airstream Flying Cloud in Bluff, UT

Our Airstream Flying Cloud in Bluff, UT


About the Author

I'm Renee Ettline. For twenty-something years my husband Fred and I have been Airstreamers. Since 2005 I've been writing for Airstream Life magazine on every topic from destinations and lifestyle to rivets and tires. Currently you'll find me in a section called, "Living the Life." We've Airstreamed from Alaska to Florida and California to Nova Scotia and loved every minute.