Category Archives: Desert

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.

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God, Steak, Texas

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“Tell me if there’s anything to look at” I say, getting back to my book. Actually, the long, flatter than flat, Texan highways give me nothing but pleasure. The  white line along the edge is mesmerising; the dot that becomes a truck is mesmerising; counting pylons is mesmerising. The fact you can look over your shoulder and back again and the view’s the same . . . There are attractions along the road, it’s just they’re spaced one hundred miles or so apart.

When we crossed back into Texas from New Mexico west of Amarillo to head southeast in the general direction of Dallas and beyond, the wind was whipping up a dust storm and there was a dirty smudge around the horizon.  Advertisers are onto a good thing here; they know drivers are bored, eager  to read anything. So although there’s nothing and no-one around as far as the eye can see, nowhere selling anything, they snatch this opportunity to play with their minds, taunting road-users with the  72oz steak on offer 40 miles away, or the Macdonald’s burger 78 miles down the road. Sometimes, at the end of the ten minute drive between spotting and passing a lofty pole, the billboard turns out to be carrying messages of a more philosophical nature – Protect Your Heritage (horse and cowboy), Don’t Mess With Texas, or God is Alive. These are hard times; poles are frequently shared, so it’s not uncommon to see a big picture of a steak next to, say, Jesus is Lord.

In fact, driving along, it becomes apparent that what most interests Texans is big steaks and God – which might go some way to explaining to the steady spread of the cowboy church. I’d been spotting cowboy church signs outside sale barns and stock sheds around the country, but the majority of them are here in Texas, where there are now estimated to be well over 200. They are essentially churches, but with a message that’s pertinent to the cowboy way of life. Their roots are in the Christian outreach programs on the rodeo circuit, which started because it was easier to take a preacher man to cowboys, rather than wait for cowboys to leave the stockyard or saloon and come to church. When the attendance grew, the cowboy mission set up fixed places for services, usually on or by ranches or markets. They do baptisms in stock tanks, sing country gospel and keep it all short. I stood outside a cowboy church on a rubbly hill looking at a metalwork cowboy kneeling by his horse (also, a ‘watch out for rattlesnakes’ sign). It was all still and quiet, and the traffic, the pace of life below, made it poignant.

I have to make an honourable mention here to the super-friendly staff at the Super 8, Kenley Avenue, Wichita Falls, Texas. I did not want to go to a Super 8, nor Wichita Falls, but hey, guess what? Funny, normal, helpful staff turned a miscalculation of driving time into a good thing. I can not, hand on heart, recommend the motel as a top choice to anyone whose budget is uncapped, but I can recommend the Texas Roadhouse, which the girls at the desk recommended to us. Actually they were horrified we’d been driven through Texas before and hadn’t even tried one. I can’t believe we hadn’t either – they’re everywhere and very good (if you like great big slabs of grilled meat).

And a thank you to the officer who cautioned us for speeding so we wouldn’t do it again and posed for a picture.

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Santa Fe

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Made two stops in Santa Fe before returning to the fireside at the Inn of the Governors. First stop Santa Fe Indian Trading Company where there was a fair bit of tat, some listless art works and an atmosphere that was somewhere between disinterested and frosty; second, the Plaza Cafe virtually next door for comfort food (chile con carne that has a good old bite, with corn bread) and friendly faces. I guess it must get tedious living in an artsy tourist city and having people come and visit it, but I’m not too sympathetic.

The local paper captured the flavour of local life, inevitably. I read through Events: ‘Farm Women Tell Their Stories’, ‘An Evening of Chanting’, ‘Stories of Old Santa Fe’, ‘Creating Spaciousness – Ancient Practices to Enhance Our Modern Lives’, ‘Orchid Culture Workshop’, ‘Free Foreclosure Education Workshop’, ‘Understanding your Medicare Options’. Under Classifieds I find ‘Cat Lost’ and ‘Cat Found’, and in the Properties section I see that Santa Fe style homes with views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Kiva fireplaces and old-growth aspens are the hot properties de jour. There’s a story about how someone found a poodle, made some dog coats our of Indian blankets that Neiman Marcus snapped up, who now lives in Santa Fe with her pets and Mexican pottery collection, gardening and playing bridge. American dream.

I was thinking of buying a rug or some jewels, but I couldn’t afford it so I had another margarita instead.

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

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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.

Dam Boring

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Spotting blue water between bulbous barren hills on the road  east-ish out of Vegas, I suggest we have ourselves a picnic at the Hoover Dam. Quite how ridiculous this idea is only becomes 100 percent clear once we are snarled into the dam system. The whole dam area is congealed with crawling coaches and slow cars. There’s no place to turn back and potential stops are limited to the high security checkpoint, the visitor centre car park, and a parking area with a view of water in a bowl of concrete. I know it’s very important and useful, but I don’t understand why we are all looking at it as if it’s going to do something. What everyone is really thinking as they stand by their cars gazing down into it in reverent silence, I can only imagine. I bet most of them are thinking they’d better stand there for another five minutes now they’ve come all this way even though they’re bored sick.

The good news is that Boulder City, Nevada, just before / beside it, is worth a visit because it has excellent retro motel signage in Old Town area, and the The World Famous Coffee Cup. I’m enjoying the use of ‘World Famous’ in front of everything from pecans to saddlebags across the USA; I like the bravado. The World Famous Coffee Cup is inevitably just a diner, albeit a friendly, popular one, and you probably wouldn’t know it was there unless you happened to pass it which . . . anyway. . . I’ve had better coffee (most everywhere) but the bacon and eggs and great piles of whatnot were perfection. One further incentive for at least slowing down in Boulder if not moving there for life, is the un-sugar-coated choice offered by the signs at a junction on the peripheries: Veterans’ Home to the right, Veterans’ Cemetery to the left.

There was a further sightseeing stop one and a half hours to the south-east. Kingman Airport, Arizona, was one of the designated dumping grounds for retired and surplus fighter planes after World War II, and, to this day, old planes are ‘retired’ here.  If looking at a row of old planes through a chain link fence is your thing, you’re going to really, really enjoy it. I understand a lot of people do. Actually, if you like scrap regardless of whether it was once a plane, car or (ouch) Airstream, you’ll find the nine-mile drive to the airport from the turn-off extremely interesting. Personally I found it all rather depressing.

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