Back in New Orleans for an
enjoyable couple of days with Jeanne &
Milton and to pick up the car. A lady from the body shop had called over a
month ago to say it was ready for collection, so that would just be a walk in,
drive out job - Not! Of course it wasn't ready, we've been doing this
stuff long enough not to really expect it to be ready. The lady who called
said it was ready. The lady in the office who took my money said it was
ready. And Jeffery (the owner), charming as always as we chewed the fat,
said it was ready. But as it's driven in through the door it clearly is not.
"What about the door mirror?" I ask. "Was that part of the Job?" I
don't think Jeffery is being serious, but I fix him with a meaningful stare and
raise an eyebrow. "Right, give me an hour." He's clearly
embarrassed. "And the pin stripes are missing?" "Maybe two hours
then." "And the sill?" I ask. It's hard to tell when a black guy is blushing, but I'm pretty sure
he is. "And the bonnet, sorry that's the hood?" I'm starting to feel
sorry for him. Though not perhaps as sorry as the worker - who was supposed
to have finished the job - is about to feel. "How about tomorrow morning?"
he asks sheepishly.
And tomorrow morning all was indeed well. We
pack the boot, sorry, trunk and we're off!
We're off to pick up the old Route 66. Some of the places
we pass through have names made famous in songs or movies, like Amarillo,
Wichita, Tucumcari, but famous or not they're mostly nondescript places that
blend into one another. To quote Tom Waits, they have "nothing that will
ever capture your heart". That is also true of the scenery. The high
planes of Northern Texas are full of a great deal of "not very much".
We marvel at what it must have been like to cross these vast open spaces on
horseback or in
covered wagons! This is cattle country where the roads disappear as far as you can see in the
distance and you set the cruise control on 75 and watch for the fuel gauge to
slowly creep towards telling you it's time to stop. It's also oil
country. The bobbing heads of pumps, which seem like animals themselves,
stretch into the distance in every direction trying to quench the USA's thirst
for petroleum. More unexpected are the huge fields of giant wind
generators marching towards the horizon. Even when the oil runs out Texas
will still be providing the USA with energy. The wind almost never stops
The wind blowing across
the unbroken plains also produces tumble weed, which of course we've all
seen rolling along the street at the beginning of dodgy black and white
westerns. What nobody prepared us for is that some of these
tumbleweeds are the size of a car. One of those could seriously
spoil your day!
As we enter New Mexico the scenery begins to change.
There is still a lot of "not very much", but now there are occasionally lumps in
it, like maybe someone has delivered piles of "not very much" which are still
waiting to be spread out. But finally it does begin to become mountainous
and that is the end of the "not very much" for quite a long time.
We have booked an apartment in Albuquerque for a few days, so stop
for a few supplies. The girl on the checkout asks for my ID because I've
bought some beer. I raise an eyebrow, but comply. Other places in
the US have the same rules - no matter how old you are you have to show ID. "I'll need to see
the lady's as well" says the girl, indicating Lindy. "But she's not
buying anything" I'm slightly stunned. "It's the law in New
Mexico" she says. Well, what can you say. No point in arguing with
her, but clearly the legislature of New Mexico have set out to prove that the
law can indeed upset reason!
What to say about Albuquerque?
Well, Breaking Bad was filmed here and the barber I visited had cut the hair of
some of the cast - "but not the stars". So I don't even get to be famous
by hair association!
After the last several days
Albuquerque does feel like a big improvement, though that's
not saying very much. It is a proper place, nestled amongst the mountains,
which gives it a nice feel, but like very many US cities it is very hard to
identify a centre or a heart. I guess where we are staying is pretty
close to the centre and there are a
handful of reasonable places to eat - though not so many that we didn't end up
returning to the same restaurant for our last evening, as we had eaten in for our
first. That's only partly because it was so cold we didn't want to wander
around finding somewhere else. It actually was a very decent place to
eat. It's called the Artichoke Cafe if you ever find yourself at a loose
end in Albuquerque!
Next stop Santa Fe. We eschew the
Interstate and follow
the windier "Turquoise Trail" for the 65 mile climb up to Santa Fe and on
the way make a detour up to Sandia Crest, which at around 3,000 metres affords
spectacular views back over the valley. There is snow piled up in the shade
at the side of the road on our way up - we haven't seen snow for a while.
We do wonder whether the cyclists we overtake on the sinuous climb up to the
peak are completely insane? Insane they may be, but when we meet them at
the top what they don't seem to be is out of breath. Maybe they are aliens
posing as cyclists. Why would aliens do that I wonder?
Santa Fe is truly worth the trip. It was founded in 1602
and has a proper town centre with town square, church, etc. It is a
pleasure just to walk around. OK, the Spanish style and adobe buildings make it
look as if it belongs more in Latin America, but that's because this was Latin
America until the US
annexed most of what was then Northern Mexico in the 19th century (including
what are now called California, Nevada, Utah, Texas, etc). And OK, the
centre is filled with expensive boutiques and restaurants out of the reach of many ordinary
local people. But we enjoyed being there more than any place we had visited
since leaving New Orleans.
Well we had found somewhere we really liked, but every silver
lining has a cloud or in this case clouds. In our case the first cloud was that Lindy
had picked up
a respiratory infection in Albuquerque which restricted the amount of exploring we could do. When we
did get out, the car battery gave up the ghost - just as the time expired on our
parking meter. And then it dumped an unseasonal amount of snow
trapping us indoors and blocking the roads out of town. But on the plus
side that did mean we couldn't leave,
so off to the thrift stores to find more
Once the weather broke and the roads began to clear we headed
off in the general direction of the Grand Canyon. We had planned to stay off
the Interstates for this part of the trip to try and see more of this
spectacular part of the country, but with lingering snow/freezing temperatures that didn't seem too
wise and as it turns out the scenery is pretty impressive without detouring too
far off the major routes. That is not to say that there
aren't probably even more breathtaking things to see if you strap a tent to your
back and hike off into the distance, but we'll just have to wait for someone
else to send us the pictures!
Coming from a smallish island in the North
Sea as we do I don't think we really had any concept, before we started this
trip, of just how big the US is - and how much of it is empty. To put it in
perspective, the US has about 5 times the population of the UK, but 50 times the
surface area! And before anyone mails us - Yes we do know that there's a
whole list of countries out there (and even some of the more Northern States of
the US) screaming "You think that's empty? What about x or y or
And that brings us to the Grand Canyon,
which itself is in the middle of nowhere.
Now of course we all know that the
"Grand" Canyon is not the deepest canyon in the world - Cotahuasi &
Colca in Peru are twice as deep. It is not even the deepest canyon in the
US - Hell's Canyon between Idaho & Oregon is 50% deeper. But it is arguably
the most spectacular (the pictures speak for themselves!) and it certainly has
the best PR!
It is also extremely well run. The National Park
Service which is responsible, has managed to create an infrastructure which
makes the canyon easily accessible to even the most sedentary couch potato,
without impacting on the environment or the natural beauty which is what makes
the place special in the first place, and without conflicting with the enjoyment
of those hardy souls who wish to hike, climb, mule, raft, etc the entire nearly
300 miles of the canyon.
The only fly in this otherwise
perfect ointment is, because the canyon is so remote, a separate infrastructure
has grown up outside the entrances to the park to service the needs of the
thousands of visitors. These hotels, restaurants, etc are predictably
expensive and uninspiring. However, even in this sea of mediocrity,
special mention is due to the Cameron Trading Post at the East Entrance.
It is not the hotel - ordinary, but OK. Not even the restaurant - and with 50
miles to the nearest restaurant and 25 miles to a McDonald you will be eating here.
That is dismal and without the benefit of alcohol to numb the senses. But
we are experienced travellers so opted for room service and a bottle of wine
(from the boot) to
wash down our "Navajo" Fry Bread - don't even ask and yes, that is how they spell
it. The thing that really singles out the Cameron Trading Post for special
mention is the Gift Shop. The store itself is huge and here you can buy
any manner of "Navajo" souvenirs. But here's the thing - China is not,
as far as I know, part of the Navajo nation. Nor is Taiwan. Nor
Pakistan, India, Mexico, etc, etc and that, if you bother to check the label
on such compelling items as the faux fur raccoon skin hat, is where most of the
horrible tat originates. I would say that it was an insult to their
customers, but a retail operation of this size does not exist if it is not turning
the stuff over, so enough customers must be happy enough. And I suppose the
Navajo themselves are more than happy to take a few percent without having to be
involved in churning the stuff out. In fact maybe I'm just being too
picky. Maybe that fluorescent plastic tomahawk would have looked perfect
in Tunbridge Wells after all.
Next stop Flagstaff - quite nice
in a trendy, outdoorsy sort of way, but most notable for being quite possibly
the outrageous facial hair capital of the USA - sorry no photos. Then
Phoenix - not really notable for anything except a song made famous by Glen
Campbell about somebody passing through Phoenix without stopping - probably a
good call! And finally Tucson, or more correctly the Sonoran Desert -
land of cacti, coyotes, javelinas and the extremely odd Gambel's Quail - which would be
our home for the next 6 weeks or so - housesitting 4 small dogs, cooking turkey
for Christmas and dining out.
Now one of the best things about
Tucson is leaving it - and I don't mean that in an unkind way. It's just
that driving out of town with the late afternoon sun painting the surrounding
mountains purple is absolutely stunning. That was a view we often saw on our
way home during the twenty something mile trip from town through the Saguaro National Park. The towering
Saguaro cacti grow nowhere else in the world and their concentration in the park
is spectacular. When you look at the picture bear in mind that these
giants don't even grow their first arm until they are 70 years old and often
live to be 200+!
The city of Tucson itself has
a lot going for it - even apart from cacti. It is the home of Arizona State
University whose elegant campus is surrounded by trendy shops and restaurants
and on two long weekends a year, 4th Street is closed for street fairs and filled
with stalls, stages, street food and live music. There are also excellent
trails for cycling and hiking.
Neatly filling the gap between Tucson
and our return to the UK at the end of February for Lindy's mum's 90th
birthday we had found a six week housesit in Nashville. There
would be just enough time for a quick visit to the legendary town of
Tombstone. Of course nowadays it is more of a cowboy theme park
than a proper town, but nonetheless it would be nice to say we had
visited. We even re-watched the 1993 Kurt Russell/Val Kilmer film
in preparation. Though any suggestion that I was ever caught in
front of the bathroom mirror practicing my "I'm your huckleberry"
is pure fabrication!
In the event
Tombstone was not to be. There wasn't much spare time on the 1,600
mile trip from Tucson to Nashville and a horrible weather forecast meant
we could only just stay ahead of the expected thunderstorm if we skipped
the detour. A bit like being sailing! So instead of Tombstone it
was Sulphur Springs (much nicer than it sounds) and Little Rock.
We seemed to have swapped Wyatt Earp for Bill Clinton. Not sure
what the exchange rate should be on that deal.
Finally Nashville. It feels a bit
like coming home. The skyline, the music, the
boots................. And I can't pretend I'm not tempted.
The shirts are pretty cool too. And of course you'd need the belt
and then you couldn't wear that outfit without the hat. I can almost
feel my flexible friend trying to break out of my wallet. But the
ultimate question is................. Can I pull it off in Pudsey?