Thursday, 14 November 2013

Driving Arizona: Part One – Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon

After checking out of our hotel, we took a cab to the airport to collect the hire car. Having never been through the process before, I was surprised at how easy and informal it was. Once we'd checked into the company desk, we were sent to the parking lot where an old guy pointed at a row of SUVs and said, "just take one of them" – so we did.  We took a Kia something or other, as it was the biggest of the choice available. I'd anticipated to be quite nervous to be driving on the other side of the road in a big car and all that, but I found I took to it quickly and without incident. The sat nav made everything easy. I found adjusting to the other side of the road a relative breeze, and we were soon out of Las Vegas and winding down a hillside opposite Lake Mead, which offered stunning vistas, so we stopped for a photo opportunity. We continued on route and were soon approaching signs for the Hoover Dam, it wasn't pencilled on our itinerary but we followed them anyway, and stopped for 45 minutes to have a look around. We walked the span of the dam and marvelled at the engineering, before stopping off on the freeway bridge and looking down on the facility, and from that height it suddenly looked rather small.

Lake Mead.
Looking down the Hoover dam.
I did as I was told.
Looking down from the bridge.
It suddenly looks a lot smaller from high up.
Further towards Flagstaff and into Arizona we past lots of groups of glinting RVs, parked out in the dry scrub, a few hundred yards off the road. Some of America's one million nomads. We were temporary nomads on this trip. Not far from here, we saw signs for the Grand Canyon Skywalk, which is a glass platform extending over the canyon, so we ignored the sat nav woman and took a right across country. We went through small desert settlements, surrounded by cacti and Joshua trees. These were trailer shack communities of peeling paint, rusting pick-up trucks and dry rot. It was like the kind of place you see in a post-apocalyptic movie. There was a church every half mile, or even less, and with little else out here you can see why God fills the vacuum. The dusty road snaked through these sparse settlements, and they reminded me of places I'd seen in Siberia and Mongolia. This was America, but this was poor America. It shouldn't be surprising, large swathes of the country are poor, we forget it when we swallow the glitz and sparkle of chrome America, but the rocky desert is a long way from Times Square. The road gave way to a grit track, no different to one you'd find in a quarry and this continued for 15 miles. There were no junctions to ever take, so it must've been the right direction. It was. We pulled onto a tarmac road again and soon up to a check point for the park. The friendly guy on the gate had some bad news for us, the park was closed for the day and we'd have to turn around. There was still 45 minutes of light and I'd hoped to be there for sunset, and beyond for the unveiling of stars, but it wasn't going to happen. We'd lost an hour as we'd crossed a time zone when entering Arizona, we might have just made it if that hadn't been the case.

I drove through darkness the way we came, before picking up signs to Flagstaff and eating up the road. There were huge distances between towns; we passed Stockton, which seemed reasonable size, but there was little else in between. We needed gas and so stopped with a quarter tank when finally it was signposted, and the detour by chance took us onto historic Route 66. Although the road no longer really exists, much like the world it made famous through books and songs, stretches of it are still in use, albeit under different names. The rest of the road was decommissioned, and sections of the road were disposed of in various ways. After gas, which three quarters of a tank cost a delightfully cheap $40, we stopped at a diner for food. I had loaded potato skins and chicken wings, with a bucket of Pepsi to wash it down. I went outside afterwards for a look around while Matt needed to use my computer. I coughed and choked and gagged, and ended up spewing up half my dinner onto The Road. I don't know what Jack would make of that.

Gas station store on Route 66.
Historic Route 66.
It was now a bit of a heritage place.
The diner we ate in.
It wasn't much further to Flagstaff, and we arrived in the city by 11pm. The air was cold as the city is 7 or 8,000 feet above sea level, we checked into a motel and hit the hay.

The next morning we left before 8am. We'd planned to leave earlier but being late was always likely. After 10 minutes we managed to pick up the right road towards the Grand Canyon. We drove through muted pine forests for ages, and then out into dry golden grasslands surrounded by pleasant hills. The speed limits were often painfully slow, 45mph on empty wide open roads, and of course my speed drifted over from time to time, though I wasn't consciously doing it. On one 65mph road I noticed I was doing about 75mph when a police patrol car went by in the opposite direction. I dropped my speed to the limit but I saw him turn around in my mirrors and come up behind us. I was mildly nervous and amused at the same time. After a minute of following me at 63mph, his lights went on and I pulled over. A fat sheriff waddled over. "Licence and registration". Yes! This was great; nothing that bad was going to happen, but I knew it would be a fun experience nonetheless. He was reasonably friendly, and my polite, smiley and subservient conversation made things run smoother. He wrote me a ticket which is a cool souvenir; it has no consequence, no fine, no court summons, nothing. Just a warning. I'll make sure I wear my lighter shoes from now on. And figure out how to set the cruise control.

The scenery north of Flagstaff.
The road towards the Grand Canyon, on which I let my speed creep up.
The cop in my rear view mirror.
It wasn't that much further to the Grand Canyon itself. We paid to get into the park, and headed to a rim trail. We spent 15 minutes taking in the views; it was much wider than I'd expected – miles across – and so it's name certainly wasn't hyperbole. After walking around and taking different pictures, we jumped back in the car and took the road that skirted the edge of the canyon for another 30 miles or so. We stopped off at various view points for some quick admiration and photographs, before continuing on our way. I was conscious to press ahead, as we had a huge drive that day, and I really wanted to make Monument Valley in good time. With that in mind, the canyon was a bit of a rush, but once you've seen an enormous gulf in the ground, is there that much more to see?

Looking down on the Grand Canyon.
I wouldn't like to try and cross it.
It's miles wide.
Tourists look out from a viewing deck.

Canyon selfie.

Tiny people pose for a photo.

Matt began driving from the Grand Canyon towards Monument Valley, right in the north of the State. We rode through variations of desert, all of it easy on the eye. I'm a bit of a nervous passenger, as in I'm always thinking about what's on the road, and I don't like surrendering control. Matt's a bit of a nervous driver, and each of our nerves probably increased the others. I did my best to relax, but it wasn't helped by the jolting, jerking and frequent drifting over the rumble strips, straining my sinews and tightening my nerves. It was all fine though, and we started to make good progress towards Monument Valley and Navajo Country.

Wing mirror desert selfie.
Matt passing a large RV.
The desert highway.
Road to heaven.

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