Later, 2012. What's Up, 2013.

I can't decide whether it was an amazing New Year's Eve or a really stupid one. I was awake at midnight, listening to clumps of traffic whiz by on the highway below our hotel window. Shannon was snoozing on the other side of the king-sized bed. The kids were asleep on dirty couches in the living room. But despite my insomnia, I had a sense of well-being because I was only paying 80 bucks for a hotel room that amounted to a two-bedroom apartment. For some reason, cheap food and cheap hotels make me happy. But Cheap Trick makes me sad.

Obligatory camel photo.
We were roadtripping. One of my favorite things, apart from scalp massages and Grape Nuts. When we arrived just after dark in Yanbu, a largely industrial seaside town a little less than halfway to our destination, we decided to stop for the night. Selecting a hotel was easy -- "Look, that sign says 'hotel' on it. Let's stay there." It wasn't a Hyatt, but there weren't any visible bugs in the lobby and the clerk was watching "Groundhog's Day" with Arabic subtitles, so how bad could it be? Our hotel room had two very large bedrooms, a kitchen, two bathrooms, and a living room.

We ordered out for shwarma and hummus. We played Uno. We went to bed. Later, 2012. What's up, 2013.

On the first day of 2013 we followed a road east into the (surprisingly rugged) mountains. Palm tree farms and quaint roadside mosques and squalid little hamlets and camel herds rolled past our windows. We listened to Taylor Swift (but turned it off at checkpoints so as not to appear to be enjoying ourselves). We ate cold shwarma from the night before. The kids watched Madagascar 3 on the DVD player. Me and Shannon listened to it and thought it was funny when the lion says, "Zebras can't drive! Only humans and penguins can drive!"Heh heh. Gets me every time.

Everyone was hungry when we eased into Al-'Eys, a little town plopped in the palm of a tight mountain valley. The kids and I wandered the main drag looking for something yummy. At the Yemeni place I asked what they had to eat. The guy held up a raw chicken. We left. Eventually, we ended up with some falafel sandwiches, a few packs of gum, and 10 cans of Coke. My New Year's resolution to kill myself was off to a good start.

We reached Mada'in Saleh -- our destination -- in the late afternoon. Mada'in Saleh is a bit like Petra in Jordan, an array of intricate and stunning tombs carved into sandstone by the Nabateans nearly two thousand years ago. Petra is probably more spectacular, but Mada'in Saleh has its own charm. Petra is vertical, mountainous. Mada'in Saleh sprawls, with tracts of open sand spread between massive boulders that simply sit in the desert where the Nabateans carved them into tombs.

Mada'in Saleh also has an atmosphere of deep seclusion that Petra will never again have. Hardly anyone comes to Mada'in Saleh. Obviously. The Saudis aren't big on tourism. But it's a boon for visitors who don't need to fight crowds or vendors. It's you and a handful of other weirdos and the desert. I think I just summed up life in one sentence.