On the Road Again (Finally!)

I have just returned from a Road Scholar trip “On the Road: America’s Great Deserts and Their National Parks”. This was my first RS trip since COVID. The tour began in Tucson, Arizona on Saturday January 22, 2022 and ended at the Las Vegas airport on the morning of Monday January 31st.

There were 23 “Road Scholars” on this trip. Most were coupled but there were also 8 single women and one man. All were interesting, well-traveled, well-read people. I always learn as much from my fellow scholars as I do from our guide. I had asked to be paired up with another female scholar to reduce costs and once again I felt very lucky to be paired with a good roommate. Robin was an easy-going lady who has camped all over the US. She has had one of my bucket-list experiences (the Alaskan Ferry System) so I feel fortunate to have gotten to pick her brain and hear her stories.

This was a bus trip traveling through the Sonoran and Mohave Deserts and, in contrast, the well-irrigated farms of Southern California. In addition to the three National Parks we also visited the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson; Yuma’s Territorial Prison; “The Wall” at El Centro, California; the Salton Sea; a date farm (where I had a date milkshake!); Palm Springs (including a street fair); the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway; an old pit-stop on Route 66 in Amboy, California; a small history-of-Death-Valley Museum housed in an old trading post in Shoshone, California; an old gold-rush era ghost town (Rhyolite, Nevada) and the world’s largest thermometer.

Although we covered a lot of ground in the bus I never was bored. The scenery was truly ever-changing and our guide, Bryan, shared tons of geological and historical information during the trip. Our driver, Ray, was a member of the Hopi tribe and had lived in and around Flagstaff all his life. He shared some of his culture with us and also told us when he couldn’t.

We had plenty of potty breaks (although many were only pit toilets) and stopped at interesting or awesomely scenic places to stretch our legs and/or eat our picnic lunches. By the end of the trip we were grumbling about sack lunch sandwiches. We also ate a lunch at an “interesting” bar in Yuma and had two on-site lunch buffets in addition to the picnic lunches. All the lunches were obviously planned to give us as much exploration time outside as possible. All breakfasts were typical hotel buffets. We had two special dinners at very nice restaurants (in Palm Springs and in Death Valley); had a buffet Chinese dinner at the largest buffet of any kind I’ve ever seen in Yuma; and the rest of the dinners were hotel buffets. Except for the special dinners, which were superb, the rest of the meals were not worth noting (but must be included because my brother, Perry, always asks about the food).

Throughout the trip we experienced COVID-impacted service issues. Although we stayed at three star hotels the cleanliness, staffing and extra touches were at the level of my normal two star Super 8 stays. Nothing terrible – just less than I expected from higher priced, mid-level chains. For example, I never saw a maid for the 9 nights of travel (I normally complain they knock at my door at 8 am). Although our guide called ahead and was told they were ready for us, when we got to our Palm Springs hotel we had to wait 20 minutes in the lobby to get our keys. It appeared only a manager was on duty at the front desk. Restaurant service was not particularly bad outside the hotels but we were expected and we went to places that obviously knew how to handle a group. Many venues at the airports are closed, which shifted business to the places that were open, which caused long lines. Most people at the airports I saw were wearing masks. The lines through the TSA were shorter and moved more quickly than usual. They seemed adequately staffed. Everyone behaved on all my flights.

I was disappointed at Saguaro NP. They were only letting a set number of people in the visitors center to ask questions or shop. I was able to run in and quickly pick up what I wanted but several in our group didn’t get that opportunity. I didn’t see that at Joshua Tree or Death Valley so it must not have been a National Park policy.

Over the next couple weeks I’ll be posting photos and comments on the trip. I hope you enjoy!