Category Archives: USA

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.

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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High-Rolling in Vegas

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I’m going to address the issue of confusion soon, but it might have started here, staying in a pyramid with a back view of Excalibur, an enchanted Disney castle, padding bleary-eyed through a casino full of cowboys to get my morning coffee – from Starbucks of all places (desperate; not my fault).

People generally come to Vegas to get married for a month, or to go crazy in the high stakes poker rooms; I decided it would be a good place to get some washing done and sort out our baggage (no euphemism). Such a quantity of coats, bags and cases travelled in the lift to the top of the pyramid in the lift with Dave and the bellhop that people assumed Dave was famous, someone even going so far as to jab him in the chest and tell him they knew him, who was he? It was helped by the fact he was wearing dark glasses inside the Luxor Hotel Casino a place (like the ones connected to it by walkways) where sunlight – or even daylight – never permeates. The bellhop (who’d worked in Vegas for decades and could tell some crazy stories . . . and then didn’t) said Dave worked for Interpol which shut them up.

Aside from the many large elderly folk plugged into Megabucks and Return of the Sphinx slot machines and Dave, who’d stopped tucking his Western shirt into his jeans and was now “working a Bill Nighy look”, the whole place – the miles and miles of deeply-carpeted interconnected casinos – was packed with cowboys wearing crisp shirts, Wranglers and Stetsons. There were whip-cracking girls, child cowboys, cowboys roping bulls streamed live in the bars, All-You-Can-Eat-Ribs, a special Cowboy Menu (basically take the head and hooves off, B-B-Q the rest), VIP Cowboy areas, and boards advertising events like the Redneck Rodeo, Million Dollar Bucking Bull Championships, Free LoCash Cowboys Concert in the Gold Buckle Zone, and the chance to win a saddle. Turns out this wasn’t normal, but Vegas’s inaugural Vegas Cowboy FanFest. I’m very interested in cowboys. Yes, sir-eee. If I could have hung around a few days and lined up at the Cowboy All-Star Autograph Session with eight-time all-around world champion, Trevor Brazile of Decatur, Texas, I would have, yes.

Something else that caught my eye was Thunder Down Under, advertised by bare-chested men on a big billboard near our pyramid, but Dave said it would ‘be disappointing’. We did plan to see the Titanic exhibition, but in the end got distracted by working our way through the Luxor coupon book, mapping a route based on free cocktails and Dos Equis. One exhibition that is unmissable is staged every morning at the Valet Parking collection point where fresh-faced families, fragrant ladies of the night just coming off-shift, bleary-eyed losers and nauseated students wait in the shade for their cars.

I know a lot of people come here and lose money, (although I did I win BIG: $16.10 paid out with a sad smile by the cashier), but the accommodation at Luxor was really good value, particularly after maintenance started drilling through the bedroom wall and we were refunded and upgraded to a gigantic gilded suite.

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Mojave (the drive to Vegas)

If you want to feel the full, jolting, thrilling, brilliant and repulsive impact of Las Vegas, approach it from the south and west, driving through (at least skirting) the Mojave desert. It’s about 220 miles from Mojave and there’s little in between. I spent 70 miles transfixed by the glinting chrome of a truck in the far distance, thinking about life. One minute it’s dark sky, then – over a hummock – Vegas explodes into view. It’s a gazillion watts; blasting loud, the pavements packed, the streets jammed, 80 giant flashing neon screens left and right ( ‘SHANIA’, ‘WIN A MILLION $$$’, ‘SOME MAGICIAN’) in every eyeful. There was London, Time Square, the Statue of Liberty, Luxor and the Eiffel Tower all visible from first set of traffic lights.  Like fast food, Vegas is decadently satisfying for a little while. . . then you feel sick. There was a plain simplicity about Mojave – the town and the flat empty road – that I really liked and appreciated. High-fiving at the slot machines an hour later, I felt I’d let myself down.

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