Time for the long-promised-to-myself road trip, something I’d wanted to do ten years ago when I first visited the States. I hired a car for two weeks; I was luckily upgraded for free so I found myself driving a luxury Buick Regal; leather seats, CD player and a damn smooth ride! The first day, December 4th, I headed southwest across the Rockies on highway 285, and before I knew it I was in jaw-droppingly beautiful scenery – huge, wide, flat plains surrounded by jagged white peaks, high mountain passes, tiny hamlets, mountain rivers cutting through rough rock outcroppings. Snow everywhere but bright blue skies overhead. I put the Dandy Warhols on loud on the stereo and sped along the highway. That night, like every night for the rest of the roadtrip, I stayed in a roadside hotel and ate in a nearby diner. The next day I went across the most beautiful mountain passes I have ever seen – the Million Dollar Highway from Montrose to Durango. I really can’t describe how stunning the scenery is in this part of the world. The weather was absolutely perfect – lucky as I would hate to drive over 11,000 foot passes in a blizzard!
That afternoon I went to Mesa Verde – the Anazasi Indian clifftop dwellings in SW Colorado. Most of them are shut in winter but I drove around the loop road checking out the excavations of pit dwellings and looking over the canyon at incredible ruins nestled in huge gaps in the cliffs. Then I took a tour to the one dwelling that was open, Spruce Tree House, which turned out to be really interesting with the added help of a good, friendly guide. The ruins are incredibly well preserved, with even traces of the paint that once made them bright and colourful, and remnants of the original wooden balconies.
I bought a miniDV camera in Denver so I took video footage as I went; certainly it gave me an excuse to talk to myself in some of the more deserted locations …
The character of the landscape changed dramatically as I drove down to the Four Corners Monument (a semi deserted clearing in the desert) where Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico – and the Navajo and Ute Mountain nations – meet. Empty ramshackle huts surrounded a plaque, and from the flagpoles came a mournful clacking sound as the ropes blew in the wind. Back on the road I headed back east through the top of New Mexico across endless desolate plains, through forgettable desert towns and past clearings where rusting cars gathered like discarded lolly wrappers. I turned off on 64 and headed for Taos, a very Mexican looking old town with a beautiful old plaza surrounded by brown adobe buildings. I found a room, and wandered the shops and the Kit Carson Museum. In a cantina I had dinner and read The Third Man.
The next day I headed for Sante Fe through lovely old mountain roads past ramshackle Mexican looking towns, dropped in on a early 19th century Spanish colonial church (Santuario de Chimayó) that supposedly heals the sick (funny, I didn‘t notice any difference), then went to Bandelier National Monument. Here I found more stunning Anazasi clifftop ruins and caves, including a vast ceremonial cave reached after a half mile hike through snow covered pine forest and 150 feet up old ladders and ancient rockcut steps.
Albuquerque initially seemed flat and ugly, but I got a room in an old 50s motel (the Hiway) on a stretch of the old Route 66 and went for a walk, and found lots of people out and about, little candles in brown paper bags lining the footpaths, live models dancing in the women’s clothes stores, and much revelry! Had a long chat with a woman who owned a hat store who told me it was ‘Christmas Crawl’ night, when the shops stayed open late and the place was buzzing. Good timing!
The next day I headed west (young man), a straight fast drive of fifty miles across wide, rolling plains dotted with scrubby trees and the blue hulks of mountains in the far distance. I turned off at the Acoma Pueblo called ‘Sky City’, an ancient Acoma Indian village sitting on the top of a rocky mesa. A very interesting tour of the adobe huts and the huge old Spanish Catholic church (my god those Spanish were bastards!) guided by an Acoma local. The Sky City is recognised as the oldest continually inhabited city in the US. Afterwards our group climbed down an rockcut ancient staircase to the base of the mesa.
That evening I drove to Canyon de Chelly National Monument in the northeastern corner of Arizona, and got a room in Thunderbird Lodge, run by the local Navajo who caretake the park, for two nights. I took a half day 4WD tour with a Navajo guide halfway up both incredible canyons, stopping at Anazasi pictographs and crumbling cliff dwellings. The canyon walls were incredibly high and carved by the wind and water into bizarre shapes, with the wind leaving huge whorls in the rock. That afternoon I drove along the canyon rim stopping at spectacular views, the highlight of which was Spider Rock, two 800 foot tall pinnacles. Later, at sunset, I retuned to one of these outlooks to sit for a while and enjoy the peacefulness and majesty of the scene at dusk.
Next stop – Utah! In the south it’s virtually deserted, and there are hundreds of miles of otherwordly vistas where you feel tiny and insignificant and very out of place. Human beings are gathered into little ugly towns miles and miles apart, huddled together with their backs against the wilderness. They’re a strange lot too, making you feel both welcome and an outsider who doesn’t know the secret handshake at the same time.
My first introduction to this bizarre state was Monument Valley, and, especially as there was a fog swirling around, it was the weirdest place I’ve ever seen. It was just like driving on the surface of Mars, surrounded by red earth and strange towering monoliths of red stone carved into bizarre shapes. I bumped into a couple of Queenslanders at a stop, who obligingly took some video of me jumping around like a mad thing in front of the scenery.
Through the Valley of the Gods and up the Mokee Dugway, three miles of severe switchbacks and gravel road climbing 1000 foot cliffs. Luckily for me the weather was fine, and I only passed one other car (very slowly). Stopping and standing on a rock looking out over the flat deserted valley below, I was giggling to myself it was so incredible. Writing in my diary of an evening, I would fumble for adjectives.
At the Natural Bridges National Monument, I hiked down about half a mile to stand under the largest (Sepapo – over 200′ high and over 250′ long). Back in the car, I followed Highway 95 through Glen Canyon and past Lake Powell, a huge manmade lake, the result of damming the Colorado. How could they do it?! However the result makes a completely alien landscape even more alien. The bizarre contrast of beige canyons and vermilion cliffs, the rocks dropping suddenly into wide still water, the sun lighting up the slopes of a distant peak, and over it all, the feeling of solitude, like I was a million miles from any other living thing. There was virtually no one on the road, and I would stop and walk up onto a rise and feel like I had walked into the first scenes from the 60s Planet of the Apes, utterly alone and almost frightened by the immensity of the landscape.
In an ugly straggle of a town called Hanksville, like a ghost town in the Australian outback, I found a room and the owners of the gas station got me some reheated turkey and a slice of apple pie for four dollars.
The next day I drove through Capitol Reef National Park, a spectacular ridge of 1000 foot cliffs riddled with canyons. I drove a dirt (and snow) road up into Capitol Gorge, then walked a mile further into the narrow canyon, ending up at a series of natural reservoirs called the Tanks. I threw stones down onto the icy crust of the water. Once again, like being in a scifi movie, and totally, completely alone. I can’t describe how weird and unsettling and exhilarating it is to be alone in such surroundings. I made high pitched sounds and listened to the resonance rebounding from the rocks.
South on scenic highway 12, carefully driving across a thin layer of snow – I was lucky to find the pass open – but the day kept getting sunnier and the views more spectacular. The sky was completely clear and I could see to the horizon. In the afternoon I made it to Bryce Canyon, and things just kept getting weirder – a vast forest of huge orange eroded towers spread out below incredible overlooks. Snow was sprinkled over the needle-like peaks. At Bryce Point I jumped over the chain that closed the overlook due to snow, and walked to the exposed point where I took the photograph here. I had no idea there were places like this left on the planet – I’ve never seen anything remotely like it. And as Ebenezer Bryce said, “it’s a helluva place to lose a cow.” Practical-minded lot, those Mormons.
Luckily I enjoyed the overlooks in the afternoon, as the next morning I woke to thickly falling snow. I deliberated about getting on the road, and after a short careful drive through the storm I decided to wait it out in a roadside motel. Luckily the next day the weather turned perfect again and I took the turnoff for Zion Canyon National Park. It wasn’t long before huge cliffs of Navajo sandstone began to crowd around the road. I went for a walk along the river, then started off on the Hidden Canyon hike, which zig zagged up a mountain side, at one point becoming a narrow ledge on a cliff face with a chain along the wall and a 500-plus foot drop a couple of feet away. At the top I sat on a rock outcropping with a 1000 foot drop below me and ridiculously huge cliffs all around. This country is like nothing I ever imagined. Now I know why everything American is ‘big’ …
That evening after a drive through vast Arizona desert framed by vermillion cliffs and scarred by deep river gorges, I arrived at Cameron, east of Grand Canyon; another excellent Navajo-run hotel. After an early start the next day it was a short drive to a fitting climax to the trip – the Grand Canyon. Certainly no words can describe your first sight of this vast expanse. It was a day with perfect visibilty and enough scattered cloud cover to cast slowly moving shadows over the infinitely detailed land below. My reaction, as it often is when confronted by astounding natural and manmade sights, is to giggle stupidly to myself …
… or dance stupidly …
I was back in California the next night and showed up at Dad’s doorstep like the prodigal son. Soon after my brother D and his girlfriend M arrived. We’ll be having Xmas here but until then, the three of us are off to Vegas to wallow in tack for two nights …