(David Filipov / Globe Staff)
 If you go: Western roadtrip



Email|Print| Text size + By David Filipov
Globe Staff / May 14, 2006

MOENKOPI, Ariz. -- Morris Chee Jr., Navajo tribesman and amateur paleontologist, poured water from his plastic bottle onto the petrified red clay. As if by magic, the giant triton of a dinosaur footprint appeared to the hushed ''Wows!" of our children, Alex, 9, and Fyodor, 8.

''This here's a female one," Chee drawled, pouring water over another print to highlight its contours as the boys watched, transfixed by the Jurassic-era tracks.

The site on the Navajo Nation Indian Reservation was one of the gems of our impromptu road trip across the Southwest: a treasure trove of the tracks and fossilized remains of dilophosaurs and other prehistoric predators sprawled across the desert, some 55 miles west of the deep-blue creases of the Grand Canyon.

It was also some 500 miles east of where we were supposed to be spending our eight-day vacation: building sand castles next to the warm Pacific surf on the sun-baked beaches south of Los Angeles.

But it rained the day we arrived, and the forecast called for a cold, wet week.

We were doomed. In Long Beach, Calif., our children had limited patience for windswept beaches, waterlogged walks, and quiet reading in the hotel; we had limited patience for impatient kids. We had a rental car with unlimited miles and a global positioning system. There was only one possible solution.

Road trip.

So we headed east, over the San Bernardino Mountains, out of the rain, and into the Mojave Desert, on an improvised six-day journey that would cover more than 1,400 miles.

Along the way, we discovered ways to make road-tripping fun for parents without making it torture for their kids. We learned the value of discussing what we had just seen, not the next destination (no one can ask ''Are we there yet?" if no one in the car knows where you're going).

We marveled at the mysterious expanses of the Grand Canyon, the arid beauty of the Painted Desert. The boys reveled in hotel room glimpses of Cartoon Network (banned at home), and food we normally avoid at home (hello, Burger King), thought purchasing a coyote skull was a highlight and watching us sample Chardonnay at a desert winery a low.

We discovered the paramount power of even the dinkiest swimming pools. We learned the benefits of two adjoining rooms in economy roadside hotels, instead of one nice big room with two beds in a pricier place.

We no doubt tickled the periphery of parental neglect. There's no other way to describe what six successive 200-mile journeys do to the 8-year-old psyche.

But as with that dinosaur site, where we marveled at the stark beauty of the desert while the kids gaped at the tracks and listened intently to the Navajo legends, each stop featured something for both sides of the generation gap.

Day 1 (Long Beach-Las Vegas, 296 miles): Under sunny skies, we stopped in Calico, Calif. We ignored the tourist shops but took the train ride through this abandoned prospecting town in the Mojave Desert. We hiked through old silver mines and practiced karate in front of scurrying desert rats. The kids hid in abandoned prospectors' huts and sprang out of fake but very real-looking wooden coffins. (It's a ghost town, get it?) Calico's mother lode -- $6 million worth of silver slag heaped just outside town -- is there for the taking. Prospectors beware: the cost to extract the silver would top $10 million.

We pondered those unattainable riches as we sipped Bud Light, the only beer available at Calico's only bar. The barmaid told us tales of the town's eight remaining residents, as the kids romped through the dusty ruins. They slept on the long slog up Interstate 15 into Las Vegas.

Day 2 (Las Vegas-Grand Canyon-Williams, Ariz., 343 miles): We had not come to gamble; we bet Vegas would have heated outdoor pools and Jacuzzis, all-you-can-eat breakfasts, and pay-per-view. We hit the jackpot. Travel hint: Give the kids an hour in the pool for every four spent in the car.

We wanted to watch the sun set over the bluish chasm of the Grand Canyon, so off we drove. At the south entrance to the national park, we learned that everyone else does, too. As the traffic inched toward the toll station at the gate, the sun slowly disappeared.

Fifteen minutes before dark, we finally stood before the gaping abyss, watching the light retreat from the layers of orange, lavender, and scarlet rock. The clouds were pink and orange streaks on the turquoise sky, like a Navajo blanket.

''Look, kids, isn't this absolutely stunning?" Anna said.

''Uhumph," came the response. They were more interested in navigating the narrow path to the frightening and rapidly darkening precipice.

We got adjoining rooms at the Fairfield Inn in Williams. It had no pool, but it did have Cartoon Network. The boys chomped happily on the pizza we had ordered, their eyes glued to the set.

Day 3 (Williams-Dinosaur Tracks-Grand Canyon-Williams, 210 miles): Future family road trippers: Buy one of those cheap, portable DVD players! We didn't have one, so we had to rely on CD players with headphones (Fyodor and Alex like the Beatles; we tend to blast the likes of Wilco and ani difranco, who sometimes swear).

We discussed the sites we had seen. At the place on US Highway 160 where we found the dinosaur footprints, Chee and his friends dispensed enough Jurassic knowledge and Navajo lore to tide us over for the ride back to the Grand Canyon, this time through the stress-free (as in, no traffic jams) Desert View entrance.

Back in Williams, we dined at Pancho McGillicuddy's on Route 66, enough of a saloon for us to feel like we were having a raunchy Wild West night out, enough of a family restaurant for the kids to want to hang out with us.

Day 4 (Williams-Hoover Dam-Las Vegas, 222 miles): It's hard to wake up in Williams on a crisp morning and not thrill to the beauty of the San Francisco Range, the mist hanging over the foothills. They say the town's elevation, nearly 7,000 feet, whets the appetite. We chose the Route 66 Diner, an all-day breakfast spot.

As we drove back to Vegas, we stopped along US Highway 93 north of Kingman to take a picture of a tree that resembled Kokopelli, the Navajo god of fertility.

We paused at the Hoover Dam to observe the plunge between Lake Mead and the Colorado River. The kids were amazed that the clocks on our cellphones changed automatically when we crossed from Mountain Time to Pacific. We dined at Burger King.

In Vegas, we walked to Treasure Island to see the free outdoor show. The material is PG-13 -- scantily clad sirens seduce muscular pirates with innuendo-laden songs -- but the kids liked it because it includes a full-length pirate ship that blows up and sinks.

Day 5 (Las Vegas-Barstow, Calif., 289 miles): The decision to visit Death Valley came somewhere after the winery visit in Pahrump, Nev. Perhaps unduly influenced by the delicious black cherry of the heady cabernet sauvignon, we decided that heading into a barren wasteland with no hotel reservations was a good idea.

It still seemed like a good idea in Death Valley Junction, a small town that features the quirky dance revues at the Amargosa Opera House. The shadows grew longer as we drove over the Funeral Mountains and into Death Valley, which made photography at Zabriskie Point appropriately moody and Antonioni-esque. But it was pitch dark by the time we had seen the Devil's Golf Course and rolled into Furnace Creek, hungry and looking for shelter.

They had plenty of food, but no room at the inn. So we saddled up and drove the winding mountain road all the way to a relaxing Jacuzzi suite at the Holiday Inn Express in Barstow.

Day 6 (Barstow-Los Angeles, 170 miles): No one talked much. Everyone seemed stunned. Yet, at the airport, as we waited for the flight to Boston, one of the boys chirped: ''I can't believe we didn't drive to see the sequoias!"

Contact David Filipov at

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