Saturday, June 28, 2014

Underground and All Around

When describing our home these days, the first word to come to mind is always "hot". It really does get pretty hot during the day - I've even given in a bit more with the air conditioning inside! But I find that whenever I do venture outside, it really isn't too hard to get used to. We had a lovely walk around our neighborhood last night, and it was a wonderful dry heat feeling with a light breeze. (Of course, when I say neighborhood, I mean to our puppy store. This week, we're in love with a cocker spaniel puppy.)

To continue our Saturday adventures, today we drove an hour Southeast to visit some attractions. If you're like me, you might be thinking "why go further South, won't it just get hotter?" But that isn't true in this instance! Just as Tucson is always 5-10 degrees cooler than Phoenix (even though 2 hours South), Benson, Bisbee and Sierra Vista are all cooler than Tucson - I've heard them to be known as having the "best year-round climate". Even if the difference in temperature is just 5 degrees, it really does feel cooler! 

We left early this morning and drove to our first destination - Kartchner Caverns State Park, just South of Benson, AZ. 

After doing a bit of letterboxing, we arrived at the visitor's center early to tour the museum and learn about the history of the cave before going on our reserved tour. We've toured several caves like this together, such as Colossal Caves in Tucson, Carlsbad Caverns in NM, and Mammoth Caves in KY, but this one in particular stands out to me as a pristine and highly treasured cave. It was only discovered in the 1970's by 2 college students from the University of Arizona. From the first time they crawled through the small, undiscovered underground area, they knew that this was special, and they wanted to find a way to share it with others while still keeping it protected. Then, and to this day, this cave is a live cave - there's still water coming through and allowing it to keep creating more natural structures. 

They managed to keep it a secret while they mapped out the cave for 4 years. After this, the young discoverers told the family that owned the land all about what was going on underground, and the family agreed they had to find a way to protect it. They decided the best way to do this was to turn it into a state park, and in 1988 it became the 25th Arizona State Park. The caves are named after the Kartchner family that owned the land before selling it to the state.

All this said, it's important for anyone planning to visit to know that these caves are still very protected. You aren't allowed to bring in anything but yourself, which means no cameras. Because I wanted to share some pictures from the caves, I'm using ones I found on AZ State Park's website, No copyright intended, I just want to convince you that they're so worth going to see!

Above picture - they call these "soda straws" because they can be as thin as 1/10th of an inch. The longest one is over 9 feet long! They are formed by tiny droplets of water that drip to the end of the "straw". 

A picture from when the cave was first being discovered - can you imagine being one of the first to enter, and stumbling across something as amazing as this?! That's exactly what happened!

It took them nearly 2 years to carefully create the railings and pathway that we now use to tour the cave. They also created special vacuum-sealed doors to keep the humidity and moisture inside, so that it could continue to be a living cave. Another fun part of being on the tour is walking through a light mist so that things like lint and oil on our bodies would stick to us instead of in the cave. They take even touching the live formations very seriously - but only with the best intentions of wanting this cave to be alive for generations to come!

The tour we took was about an hour. We loved our tour guide - she used very technical chemistry terms, then broke them down for the kids in the group. It was a great way to spend a summer morning in Arizona - underground where it's nice and cool! :)

After this, we continued driving South to Fort Huachuca in Sierra Vista, another landmark we'd been wanting to visit. There wasn't a whole lot to do, but we enjoyed walking through the 3 museums about the history of this place. I kept thinking about how much my dad would love this place - he and Curtis have this love for battles and history in common. Yeah, it's true, I married someone very much like my dad. I'm okay with that. :)

Curtis in his happy place!

Outside, facing South - we could see so many familiar mountain ranges from here. So many we've been to…yet so many we want to hike! Sadly, it's just too hot for that right now!

And that was our weekend adventure - 2 more things crossed off our AZ bucketlist, another educational & fun Saturday. Maybe I don't feel as cool as last week when I was gladly proclaiming "I HIKED MT HUMPHREY!" -but still fun nonetheless. I love adventures with my husband, and I'm so blessed to have gotten 11 months of this so far. :)

Thursday, June 26, 2014

I Have Found the One My Soul Loves

First off - no, this isn't a sappy post about my dear husband, I think it's already been established that I'm crazy about him! This post is about something new that has stolen our hearts…and all our dreams of "eating healthy".

After almost 11 months of marriage and probably 30 different cheesecakes, we have found THE ONE:

Neapolitan Cheesecake!

Yeah, it was so good, it was halfway gone before I was able to get pictures

It wasn't long before moving into our home that we discovered there was a Cheesecake Factory restaurant just 2 blocks away. We happen to walk by there at least once a week when we go to visit the puppy store, and usually when we're passing by, we're a bit depressed because we aren't coming home with an adorable puppy. We've given in and gotten slices of cheesecake before, but we knew that it couldn't become a habit because spending $8 on a single slice would get us into trouble. Because of this, it is simply understood that we need a cheesecake to come home to, which means I'm making a new cheesecake about once a week.

Chocolate truffle. Chocolate chip. Peach. Cookie Dough. Chocolate Raspberry. Nutella. Brownie swirl. Snickers. Oreo. Candy bar. Pumpkin. These are just a few of the many kinds I have experimented. Most of them tasted pretty good, there were a few that didn't work out. They rarely looked as good as the picture with the cookbook or online recipe. But they were always just fine, and helped us to be content, until now.

This Neapolitan Cheesecake is everything we have been looking for in a dessert! Three light and airy layers of flavorful deliciousness, with a sweet and crunchy Oreo crust to tie them all together. Fluffy, creamy goodness that you just can't say no to. Smooth and sweet bites that will keep you coming back for more. So simple to make, and doesn't require baking. This is the one we've been searching for, for all of this time. This is the cheesecake that we want to spend the rest of our life eating. No cheesecake can ever compare to this; there is no dessert that can satisfy this craving. I know that my life will never be the same.

Here is where you can find this recipe. She obviously has better pictures of it too. ;) I didn't make the crust to go all the way up the side, but that's okay, we got to eat the last 2 sleeves of Oreos. I also couldn't find strawberry extract, so I used grenadine and it tastes amazing. 

Cheesecake so amazing, I'm even blogging about it. Now THAT'S good. :)

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Flagstaff Day 3: Hiking Mt. Humphreys!

Saturday, June 21, 2014 : The Day We Hiked Mt. Humphreys

Excitement was in the air from the moment we woke up - it's today! We're finally going to do this! So much preparation - physically and mentally - had gone into this, and we felt completely ready to take on this new challenge. We woke up at 5:30, packed our bags, ate a big breakfast, and waited impatiently for our friends to pick us up. I don't normally drink coffee because of the extreme effects it has on me, but today was special so I went for it. It wasn't long before I was skipping and dancing all over the hotel room - poor Curtis. :)

Mitchell & Henri, our hiking buddies, finally arrived, and we all rode together up to the trailhead parking lot - North of Flagstaff at about 8000 feet. There were more vehicles and people around than I expected, but it was somewhat comforting to know we weren't at all alone and if anything went wrong, there were plenty of people to run into. It's also such a friendly atmosphere when you're around other hikers who are just excited as you are about doing a peak hike. There were also several dogs as well who looked just as excited as their owners.

Humphreys peak, here we come! Mitchell had done this hike 3 times before and knew what to expect from it. His main concern was that there were 25 mph winds predicted in Flagstaff, which meant that the winds would be much worse at the higher altitudes. But there was no turning back now - we were going to hike no matter what!

Besides the wind, it was a perfect morning for hiking. Flagstaff in general is beautiful this time of year and provides a great escape from the heat in the desert. The trail began through a thick forest of pine trees with a well-used dirt path. The trail was generally pretty easy with just a slight incline, definitely not the worst we'd hiked. For the first 3ish miles, the only things to really look out for on the trail were tree roots, as opposed to other trails that can be covered with rocks, and difficult to walk both up and down.

We were off to a great start - coming up early to adjust to the elevation definitely paid off! The guys let me lead the group, since I can be the slowest and my legs are the shortest, it really helped me to be able to set the pace. At this point though, I'm pretty sure I was going fast enough that some had to stop more often to catch their breath. :)

About 1.5 miles in, we came to the above 2 pictures - what Mitch calls the "rockalanche". It's basically this huge clearing with lava rocks as far as you can see. We took a short break from hiking to climb on the rocks and enjoy the view to the West.

The guys, out on the rocks. If we were to go farther North at this point instead of following the trail up the mountain, we could find the remains of a B-24 Bomber. As cool as that would have been, it's pretty hard to get to, and we were already on a mission!

The view! Gotta love the perfect blue skies on a day like today.

After snacking on some cookies, we got back on the trail and continued heading to our destination. The higher we got, the more rocks that were on the trail - but we were not discouraged!

Facing South, toward Agassiz Peak. You can ski over there!

We ran into many groups as we hiked. Some hikers, some joggers, and some dogs! There was one in particular that we happened to see several times as we passed each other on the trail back and forth. It was a 14 year old border collie who, like all other dogs, looked excited to be on the trail. The funny thing was, the first time we saw it, it had a little stick in its mouth, and every time we saw it, the stick got a little bigger!

The sign in the above picture is telling us we are now at 11,400 feet. We're already higher than any other peak hike has ever taken us! I was doing great with the altitude and thin air - as long as I kept moving, I was breathing enough and doing fine. I would only start to feel dizzy if we stopped for longer periods of time and I'd forget to breathe.

At this point, we were meeting more people coming down the trail than going up. We asked some if they made it to the summit, and they said no - it was too windy at the saddle. We tried to ignore their warnings and kept going. There were still people heading up, it wouldn't be impossible, and we were GOING to do this!

3.8 miles in - we reached the saddle! The last half mile before this was rockier and less shaded, as trees were becoming scarce. At this point, there were no more trees. We took one more break here, and Mitch prepped us on what we were about to experience. There was one mile left, and it'd be unlike anything we'd done before. The path would be very rocky and very windy. We were going to come across several false peaks that would get our hopes up over and over, only to shatter them, but don't give up because the real one is still coming! He also advised that we do not stop and just press on to the end. 

One last look at what's below us, to the East - this is where we had hiked on Thursday night. Yes, there is snow down there - but there was none up where we were!

And so we set off for the last stretch to the summit. The wind picked up quickly - it was blowing from the West to the East at about 60-70 mph, and I was thankful for my new walking poles, heavy backpack, and Curtis holding on during some parts that kept me from blowing away. ;) Sometimes it was hard to catch a breath because the wind would blow by us so quickly, we had to turn against the wind to take a deep breath. 

At one point, a member in our group had to stop, so we all got to the side and ducked down and waited. This was the only time when the altitude really started to get to me, and my mind started panicking. Was I running out of air? Could I still make it? After quick deliberation, I knew turning back would not be an option - it would be much safer for me to stick with my group than turn back on my own now. I told Curtis that I needed to keep moving, and so we pressed on. It only got windier as we got closer, and at one point we had to breathe into our shirts to get enough air. 

Finally, after passing by several peaks, Mitchell told us "That's it!" That was all I needed - I almost started sprinting toward the end. I was about to cry I was so happy - but decided to not because I was with all guys, and that would just be awkward. :) WE MADE IT!

There were actually a lot of people at the top. There were plenty of "shelters" made from the rocks at the top, protecting hikers from the wind. We all made it over to the East side and sat down to take it all it.

We had started at 7am that morning, and made it here by 11! Just 4 hours to hike the 4.8 miles to the top! We spent a good hour up there, and around noon we realized that today was the Summer Solstice. That meant that when the sun was at its highest point in the sky, we were at the highest point in Arizona. That was a cool thought. :)

Curtis' shirt was very accurate for the last mile of our hike - "God promises a safe landing, not a calm passage". That last mile was anything BUT calm!

Mitch & Henri enjoying their gourmet sandwiches at the top...

Curtis has sandwich envy ;) He wouldn't believe me when I told him that his with the homemade bread would be just as good!

Above - facing Northeast. The peak was pretty wide, wide enough for all the people (and dogs!) who had made it. The only downside was not having free range to run around and take pictures of everything!

Above - facing West. I was also braving the harsh winds to get these pictures!

Facing Northwest - the Grand Canyon is in the distance, we could see both rims from the top!

Curtis & I holding up the sign - we did it! 12,633 feet.

Our whole group. We failed at asking the "right person" to take our picture, this was the only good one they took - all the rest they zoomed in on just us. Who hikes all the way up Mt. Humphrey's and just wants a picture of his or herself without the amazing view?!?

Curtis, facing North. I guess I completely missed the South, which would have showed the trail and all the false peaks!

Curtis holding my hair back because the wind wants to take it away!

After over an hour at the top, we began the hike back down. This is when I started struggling. With every hiking trip we do, there's always something that goes wrong. It's almost never the same thing at least - and this time was no different. I always like to think of it as God reminding me that without Him, I wouldn't be able to do any of this, and it's only through His power that I'm going to make it. What happened? Well, the day before, we had asked Mitch what the best thing to eat or drink was to help prevent altitude sickness, and he said dark chocolate. So we went out and bought a lot of dark chocolate! Yes, I am a woman, chocolate is my weakness, but I really never eat dark chocolate…and this stuff was wayyy too rich for me. My stomach was not happy. And so, for the first mile, not only was I having to carefully make my way down a steep path with large rocks and winds at 60 mph, all I really wanted to do was curl up in a little ball and wait to feel better!

At last, we finally made it past the treacherous tundra, and we were once again able to relax at the saddle. I laid down for a bit and started feeling better - and when I was lying there, I noticed the window in the rocks across the way! (Above picture).

The only "con" to doing so much better with hiking this entire trip is that I don't have pictures from each part of the hike to document the fun we had! The above picture is the last one I had, with Mitchell throwing a banana at Henri. After this, we headed back down the mountain, and the further down we got the easier the trail became. I think I actually went slower going down than going up, and we definitely took longer breaks. We made it back to the car at 4pm - I felt like I should have been exhausted, but instead I was ecstatic! We did it! All the training paid off and we survived! I was still bouncing just as much as right after I had my coffee!

What about Curtis? Well, he did great the entire hike, then we got back to our hotel and he was asleep BEFORE his head hit the pillow. ;)

We celebrated later with dinner at Mama Burger, a burger restaurant off of Route 66. (If the name sounds familiar, that's probably because you've seen pictures on this blog of Curtis wearing his Mama Burger shirt. So silly.) :)

The next day, Sunday, June 22, we were awake bright and early again to do a little more hiking and find a few more letterboxes, and then we were on our way home! Thanking God for an awesome weekend and for protecting us all the way through. :)

Monday, June 23, 2014

Flagstaff Day 2: Craters, Canyons, and Pueblos

Friday, June 20, 2014 - Our second camping adventure since we got married turned out to be much better than our first! Last time, we camped in Albuquerque in October, it was freezing cold and we had no air mattress. Both of those problems were easily fixable by camping in Arizona in June, and buying a little twin mattress to fit in our tiny tent. Curtis said that the mattress wasn't blown up enough and he was touching the ground all night, but I was fine - it's nice to be the smaller one sometimes ;)

We were up at dawn, around 5:20. We were okay with that - it meant we had more time to enjoy the day! After enjoying the warmth of our sleeping bags a bit longer, we packed up and began the dreaded drive down the mountain. Well, I was dreading it at least, but Curtis drove slowly & safely and we were down and on our way in no time.

Curtis' friend gave him this Sasquatch air freshener. I know you're all so jealous of me, getting to ride in a truck that smells like a big hairy beast… ;)

It was only 7am when we were on the road that loops around from Sunset Crater National Monument to Wupatki National Monument off of highway 89. We had some time to kill before the park opened, so we did a little letterboxing. After getting 3 boxes and doing about a mile of hiking for those boxes, we headed over to the visitor's center for Sunset Crater.

After getting our National Monument stamps, we began driving through Sunset Crater, noting the lava flow as we drove along. We came to Lenox Crater Trailhead and decided it'd be a good one to use for practice for Humphrey's. The trail was a mile long, and literally went straight up the mountain - no switchbacks, just walking up a steep and sandy path! It was honestly kind of a disappointment though, we were hoping that the crater would be a bit more obvious to see. The mountain did however give us a good view of Mt. Humphrey's, again! 

Here's the same view, just zoomed out. As you can see, the ground is all covered in cinder, which is like walking in sand. It made walking back down the trail interesting, but much faster and easier than walking up. A bit disappointed with what this park had to offer, we decided to just continue driving to the next National Monument on the loop.

Above - the black rocks all over the ground are lava flow. There were some trails that took you to see more, but we felt like we saw enough just by driving through.

Above - this is the volcano, with the best view we got of it. We decided that being able to hike up there is what would have made the monument so much better! 

The view facing North at around 8:30 am. Beautiful and a perfect day weather wise for touring the greater Flagstaff, AZ!

One of the best views we got of a crater in the above picture. Not sure what the name of this one was, but we just saw it as we were passing by. We continued on our way, letterboxing over to Wupatki!

Pulled over for a picture with the view - we look so small compared to everything! We propped my camera up on top of the Yeti, and after losing half of the seconds with it on timer mode, Curtis made a mad dash to get in the picture, but it still ended up pretty cute. :)

We finally reached Wupatki National Monument. While Sunset Crater ended up being a disappointment, Wupatki was a pleasant surprise for us! These first pictures are from the short loop trail at the visitor's center.

The biggest pueblo - Wupatki Pueblo. It had so many little rooms, doors, and windows. I loved the color of these!

Us & our pueblo. Yes, ours. We conquered these too. ;)

Peeking through the door! Oh, and wishing we could walk inside, too!

We got our wish! I thought this would make a cute picture, so I set up my camera on timer on the ground, and we sat there and awkwardly smiled at it as other people were walking by and staring at us. I'm glad we stuck it out though because I think it's a cute picture. :)

One last look at the main set up. There's a smaller pueblo behind, and the circular structures were game areas, at least that's what the pictures & descriptions in the visitor's center told us!

This is the Wukoki pueblo, a short drive away from the visitor's center - it's smaller, but you can actually go inside this one!

Oh hey Humphrey, didn't see you there… Just kidding, we see you everywhere!

We ducked through this tiny 3 foot door to get in the secret pueblo room!

We're inside! Okay, maybe not as cool as we thought it'd feel… but this was still pretty fun!

Just so that you get an idea of how tall it is - Curtis is 6'3'', it's taller than 2 Curtis'!

Here's the window view that Curtis was looking through in the before picture. 

One last look at the small & mighty pueblo. Now on to our next adventure! We drove back into Flagstaff and had a well deserved brunch at Village Inn after having to skip dinner last night. We were excited that it was only 11am at that point, which meant we were doing much better than expected on time and would be able to see many more places! Not only that, but we were also doing very well on finding letterboxes - we had found 5 for today already and no strikeouts! After brunch, we headed East on I-40 - first stop, Meteor Crater!

It was a half hour drive on the interstate, and then another 6 miles South - not the most interesting drive, until we got to this point - in the above picture, you can see the outer rims of the crater!

Even though it's a National Landmark, they only let Curtis in for free with the military pass. That was the only real downside we had for this landmark - it's expensive, especially if you don't have a pass! At least the crater is really as big and exciting as they make it seem. In the above picture, you can see most of it. There's a cloud starting to go over the crater creating the creepy, dark shadow!

Even creepier picture, with more clouds over top. I wish I could have gotten a panorama of the whole thing! We could have taken a guided tour, but we could go just as far on the rim on our own, without having to be with a group, and that was definitely preferable for us.

Zoomed in on the bottom of the crater. Curtis thinks it would be so much cooler if he could go down there...

So he hiked right on down to the bottom of the crater! ...

Oops, never mind. :) This was just us having fun in the museum. I love his expression in the second picture. That's really where he'd rather be though!

Humphrey came with us to the crater, too. Funny how no matter where we are, it's still the most important thing to us! I was getting pretty nervous about hiking it at this point. I had been telling myself that this was probably the only chance I'd ever have to hike it, and I was hoping that knowing this would be enough to make me push through to the top. The closer it got though, the more nervous I felt, wondering if I could actually do it!

We did some more letterboxing on the way back, but opted to not go farther East to get other questionable boxes. Instead, we stopped at the sketchy town of Two Guns, AZ. Here's what there is to see there!

A stop along Historic Route 66. Sometimes the road is well maintained and traveled, other times it is a mess and no one dares to drive on it. This is one of those times. However, there was a letterbox...

This is not a sign I like to see. ;) This actually used to be a zoo though? Thankfully we saw no such creatures.

We continued going East, making a brief stop in Winona, AZ, and we decided to finish up our tour of the greater Flagstaff area by visiting Walnut Canyon National Monument.

First view of the canyon - So beautiful & unique! After getting our National Monument stamps, we set off on the mile long loop trail that goes into the canyon. What you can't see from this view are the cliff dwellings - but you'll see them soon!

It was HUGE… these pictures are of the loop down and around the center section. There weren't any other longer trails that we could have taken, so we had to be content with this one!

Beginning the walk into the canyon - taking it easy because we knew we'd have to have enough energy to walk back up!

See the holes? Those are the cliff dwellings!

Because of the trees, it's difficult to tell how far the canyon goes - trust me, it goes pretty far, and very deep!

Us inside a dwelling - again with setting my camera on timer and smiling as others pass by. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do to get the once in a lifetime picture. ;)

The trail was paved the whole way through, and thankfully there was some shade to protect us from the sun, which had definitely heated up the area but not as bad as back at home!

Several rooms lined up together under the cliffs.

"Enjoying the shade at Walnut Canyon" selfie. :)

We finished the trail, then after cooling off in the visitor's center, we went off for one more letterbox for the day. This one took us just down the road to a trailhead for the Arizona Trail.

We've done so much hiking on different parts of this trail that stretches across our state, but that's not enough for Curtis - all he wants is to be able to take 3 months off and hike the whole thing! Poor Curtis. :)

We found our letterbox then took this silly picture before heading back to Flagstaff. We checked into our hotel and rested for about an hour as we waited for our friends & hiking buddies to arrive in town. That night, we introduced them to Cracker Barrel for a delicious dinner, (a great day-before peak hike meal, filled with carbs!) then we ran some errands to get last minute necessities for the hike, and went to bed early. Thanks to not getting as much sleep while camping, sleep came easy to us that night, even though we were anxious to wake up and begin!

Summary of day 2: 4 National Monuments/Landmarks, 8 letterboxes, about 5 miles hiked.