Category Archives: Arizona


Elvis’ favourite booth, Arcade Restaurant, South Main, Memphis.

The 80 posts, videos and photo galleries, written, edited and uploaded – fast – in motels during a 3 month road trip are instant snapshots of life as I saw it in passing. I mapped a route from Detroit to Alabama, across to LA, up the west coast and back that took me to the places I knew nothing about (Dripping Springs, Hocking Hills) to see what was there, and to places I knew not enough about (Montgomery, Little Rock, Memphis). I went to Marfa to see Prada Marfa and find out more about Donald Judd, to West for a taste of Czech culture, and to Breaux Bridge to eat crawfish, and went to plenty of places to find out more about the tiny house movement. I saw the Grand Canyon, Big Sur, Hoover Dam, stayed in LA, San Francisco, San Diego, Nashville, New Orleans, but it was the smaller attractions, people in ordinary places and the stretched spaces in between that I enjoyed more.

“The Lord told Job ‘Pull your pants up, punk!'” – baptist preacher, local radio, Alabama.

There are some useful travel tips in there including a list of the motels I stayed at, but this wasn’t a sponsored or supported or commissioned trip and it was done in late 2012/2013 (with a friend who drove). Each post is a slight vignette. If as a whole they serve any purpose, I hope it is as a reminder that wandering is a joy and the ordinary is extraordinary.

The trip runs backwards. The posts are listed under Contents, but here are some favourites.

America: In conclusionMotels and Shootings  |  Czeching Out West, Texas   |  To Grand Canyon & Beyond  – just a video shot from the window in changing weather with a brief interlude at one of the wonders of the world  | Dam Boring – just because the Hoover Dam is big, doesn’t make it interesting   |  Mojave (the drive to Vegas) – another dreamy drive, into sin capital  | Palm Springs House-Hunting – mid-centuries for when I win the lottery   | Ghost Town, New Mexico – rough edited video of one of the most atmospheric AirBnBs  | Visiting Marfa, Texas   |  On the (Texas) Road – a through the window video  |  New Orleans  – this post just colourful doors.

On tiny houses: Shelter founder Lloyd KahnReclaimed Space, | The Bone House | Interview at The Bone HouseTiny Texas Houses | Tumbleweed


America: In conclusion

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It’s actually a load of different countries tied together with strings of Arbys and Taco Bells. In some, people are very busy accumulating more and more stuff; in others people are a further along, working out what to do with the mountain of old stuff they can’t afford to run or fix, like mills and factories, warehouses, mines, the trucks and fridges and boats and trailers in their yards, and Detroit. I like those places best.

Aside from that, other observations based on nothing much: for a country obsessed with safety and litigation, they have a very laissez faire approach to hairpin bends (and guns, obviously), tacos are definitely the national dish; you don’t get postcards showing cactus in the snow; the cleaning staff in 99% of the places we stayed were Hispanic and overtly deferential; if you put the fried chicken at the back of Walmarts and took away the little cars you’d give the people who need it most a really good workout; there’s sugar in the ‘natural’ yoghurt, and sink holes under Louisiana, and tunnels full of aliens under New Mexico (can’t remember where), and cupcake ATMs in L.A; sisters (well, people) are doing it for themselves when it comes to building a home, and cowboys are making a comeback in those there hills.

We started in messed-up, empty Detroit (playground of the inspired and energetic), continued through Ohio and the eastern states,Virginia and West Virginia, all wide-open spaces, rural retreats, Amish furniture stores, bail bondsmen, payday loans, attorneys, pawn shops, and guns and ammo stores. I’d had a taste of the Triangular heart of middle-class North Carolina with its good wine, good cheese, good books, good works, travelled through tidy towns with libraries, art trails and bible groups, past green fields with white picket fences and sleek horses looking over them. Preacher men warned against loose women, wrongful ways on the radio through the Carolinas, Southern Baptists sang in Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi, and by Alabama it was the story of the blues, of civil rights, gulf oil spills and grits. In Cajun country, in Louisiana, it was frottoirs and boudin, and Bloody Marys, dancing at breakfast with old men in hats, and basking by a lake in the heat talking to duck hunters in camouflage. We’d driven under the crystal bright, anything is possible skies of Texas, met unicycling children in the back of beyond and stepped back in time to a world of drunk cowboys, Mexican silver miners and Apache raids on the saloon stables in places where they shoot rattlers and eat chillies with everything, in New Mexico. We’d observed golfers in Scottsdale, 70-year old dancing girls wearing nothing but feathers in Palm Springs, and left behind done-in L.A., with its big mess of smog and flyovers, for a California that was cheeringly, drippingly, wild. After standing at the western edge for a bit, we turned back, wheels spinning, along the fringes of Yosemite, the Mohave Desert, the Grand Canyon and the Sangre de Cristo mountains – the best of wild America, arriving in Memphis, the day after another shooting, when everyone’s thoughts – albeit briefly – were focused on the worst by-products of a ‘civilised’ America.

I read – and love – travel books by experts writing about things they know but they aren’t the books that make me travel. It’s accounts of enthusiasts  abandoning themselves to journeys of discovery that set me off with the packing again. On the whole, I don’t buy a ticket and fly across the world to see something I already know about; I travel to places that are for some reason obscure because it appears I am addicted to the process of discovery – what’s around the next bend? on the next block? what’s up in the north / down in the south? what’s that hotel like inside? what’s the local food? what kind of person lives here? what do they do?  could I live here? could I really live here? Is this my Somewheresville?

So, America. Perhaps not everyone’s idea of an obscure destination, but it was unknown to me (and it’s a big place, so most of it still is). All places are fascinating, odd, surprising to anyone seeing them for the first time whether that’s Slough or Mombasa or Santa Fe. You wouldn’t think that could be possible by looking at the Must See Tourism Attractions (museum, building, monument yada yada), but it is. It really is. Someone at some point in every country has made a subjective selection, and over time that selection has become official. Seeing these certain things is tantamount to obligatory . . . (particularly if you happen to be a travel journalist whose elbow is in the firm grip of the local tourism representative) . . . which leads to stress, inevitably some disappointment, and an experience on a well-worn tourism loop which, while possibly pleasant, is quite unlike the kind of experience people living in the country have on a day to day basis.

Having spent just five weeks or so in America, and mainly in a car in America, I wouldn’t presume to offer any useful concluding observations about what sort of thing America is. However, I hope I’ve raised a virtual glass to that intoxicating process of discovery and the freedom of unplanned drifting travel, and provided a reminder that there is no official decree that ranks the Hoover Dam as a better attraction than the little town of Luling, Texas, or the Golden Gate Bridge over a bar in Mission, or the Titanic Exhibition in Vegas over the cake-sellers at a market in Alabama. There is no travel expert who can say that a $100 dinner is  – by default – more enjoyable than a warm $3 sausage and jalapeno kolache, no-one who can actually prove there’s anything better than listening to the wind blow in the Gila National Forest, anything more beautiful than a straight line of telegraph poles going on for miles and miles under a desert sky. Cheers to that.

To Grand Canyon & Beyond

This is winter, remember. Much like for the ‘cutting through Yosemite’ jaunt, the warnings for anyone attempting to go due east are fairly easy to spot on your average map. But, no matter. We travelled 1hr 45 minutes north from Flagstaff to the east end of the Grand Canyon South Rim. The vague plan was then to visit Taos, New Mexico, which, according to the GPS / SatNav (AKA The Lady), was 1hr 45 minutes south to Flagstaff and then five hours along on the I-40 to Alberquerque and then two hours north again. Well that seemed wrong. I thought we’d cut across.

I suppose the first inkling of unease was when the white boulders scattered across the high plains turned out to be snow. There was a ratcheting up of anxiety as it continued to get darker, and higher, and colder. The robotic New Mexico weather warnings done in the style of war-time radio communiques to resistance fighters behind enemy lines weren’t encouraging: Snow expected on the high plains. Repeat Snow expected on the high plains. Just before I lost network coverage I semi-casually looked up the travel advice on the National Weather Service and found this useful piece of information:

“Travel in winter can be extremely dangerous. The best thing to do is cancel any travel if winter weather will occur. However if you must travel, make sure you plan ahead. Make sure other people know your travel plans and know how to contact you. Travel in convoy with other vehicles if possible. Keep a survival kit in your vehicle. This kit should include items which include non-perishable food such as can goods or candy bars, extra clothes and blankets, a battery powered radio, a shovel, and sand. If stranded, the best thing to do in to stay in the vehicle. Tie a bright colored cloth to the antenna so rescuers can find you.” Oh well.

It was perplexing how this highway with a proper number (64) could have gone from flat and boring to steep, winding and shimmering under a thick pack of corrugated ice. And where was everyone else? UK weather is nuanced. US weather is big and mean and serious. Rather like me in fact, refusing to see the funny side as we slithered sideways past Deer Trail and Elk Drive and Frozen Creek and on and on and on.

We finally hit a town of sorts – Dulce – which, incidentally, according to some, has aliens living beneath it in government-run tunnels. Didn’t see any, but I wasn’t really looking. I’m not against the notion of aliens per se, and quite frankly after a few weeks in America, I’m not surprised they come here, but I had more important things on my mind than alien breakouts. other things on my mind. I now had no interest whatsoever in climbing higher and further to Taos.  I didn’t care that it was where  DH Lawrence wrote The Plumed Serpent. I only wanted to stay here in Dulce at the Apache Nugget’s Wild Horse Hotel and Casino, the only place open, and eat chips. Actually the gas station was also open. And However, in one of those aggravating man-to-man conversations by the pumps, a local truck driver with 4-wheel drive and  winter tyres, grit and shovels told Dave we ‘might’ be able to make it through to the next town, Charme. and if we did get to Charme, there was a fairly good chance we’d make it to Santa Fe, 100 miles away.

It’s really awful driving along deserted mountain roads in the dark knowing you only ‘might’ make it to your destination. We survived but, much like Night of the Living Dead, only to find ourselves in deeper water – or in this specific case, snow. Santa Fe had had a snow storm and most streets were impassable. One of the few that wasn’t led to the bar at Inn of the Governors (where they serve a very good margarita). Stayed there, but didn’t use the pool.

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Grand Canyon

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Just beautiful. Like a mould for a mountain range. The North Rim is barely accessible over winter; this is from the South. Great place for fresh air, deep thoughts. Not so good – off-season- for Navajo trinkets.

Confusion in Flagstaff, Arizona


Unlike flying which forces you to rapidly readjust your grip on reality while half asleep waiting for a shuttle bus, driving is about gradual transitions. And that’s why I like it. It’s not unreasonable after a 3 and a half hour drive to expect the world to be roughly the way you left it. I get in the hot Chevy in hot, sunny Vegas; I get out of the hot Chevy at Flagstaff where it’s 5 o’clock and dark, and the temperature is 36 degrees fahrenheit, finally deciphered (and checked) as being -2 degrees centigrade.  Merry red-cheeked townsfolk pass by in fur-lined boots, and bobble hats, carrying skis, singing Ding Dong Merrily on High.

Okay, not the carols (further adding to confusion the streets are actually loud with the sound of Santana blasting from speakers somewhere), and they’re not carrying skis, but there are skis on the walls of the bar, and lots of them.  Over a pint of the local speciality, Moose Drool, I work it out. It’s not hard – the bar’s called Altitudes Bar & Grill and it’s built like a wooden ski chalet. It’s located at 6,900 ft in a city that averages 100 inches of snow a year. The unfolding horror continues as I research further. There’s a Flagstaff Alpine Ski Team, a junior snowboard team, plants growing out of ceramic ski boots, a Year-Round Alpine Playground with ‘challenging trails’ and over 2,300 ft of vertical drop just ‘minutes away’, and there’s a good chance it’s going to snow tomorrow.  On top of that it’s Christmas. Hipsters are wearing Santa hats ironically, there are icicle style fairly lights in the bar, and there’s a semi-inflated Santa by the door of the Howard Johnson we end up in (a branch which, as it happens, has not had the HoJo makeover).

At the start of the road trip, I had some facts and insights about possible destinations, and lists of Top Ten Bars, film locations, boutique hotels, crime scenes, and settings for songs, but they’ve all run out so now everything from the geographic spread of the taco to the size of Walmart, and now the winter wonderland that is Flagstaff – generally 15 degrees centigrade colder than just-down-the-road Phoenix  – is a great big surprise.

Five weeks in, I also get a big surprise waking up with the bathroom and window in a different place every morning. I’ve stayed in room number 311, 211, 503, 217, 1053, 25, 3, 629, 329 and 229 and a couple of dozen more, and tried keycards in wrong doors. Sometimes, walking down a hotel corridor, I’ll be trying to work out what town I’m in. The whole time zone thing is also making everything very confusing. I quite liked it getting earlier and earlier as we crossed west from Eastern, to Central, to Mountain and Pacific. I hate  driving east and being late for everything, with the sun setting before you expect it to set, and breakfast over because you didn’t put your watch forward. Motel breakfasts are generally foul, but miss one and it’s tragic.

Desert Town

I call this: Hello, hello . . . anyone around here sell brioche? One of those quieter towns somewhere on the I-10 to Palm Springs. Only missed out by 11 months, apparently. The building with the flag is a post office and still functioning. Dave found a woman in there at a desk at the end of a long room and bought a stamp. I met a nice man with no teeth in a truck outside.

Incidentally, he also picked up a postcard:

desert town

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