Day 27 – Dallas TX to Tucumcari NM
Oh dear. A minimum of eight hours in the car today and Lana did not start the day well. Cletus was being annoying and she was coming down what turned out to be a grim chest cold. Today was going to require stops to stretch legs and get some fresh air, interspersed with plenty of naps.
We travelled cross country; no interstate until late in the day, on joining the I-40 just before Amarillo. The soil was redder, a welcome change from yesterday’s endless grey (you have to take your kicks where you can get them, right?), and was given over entirely to fields of cotton. We’re travelling well after harvest season, so the fields weren’t much to look at, but trapped in the grass on the verge for miles and miles was the white fluff of the cotton, caught by the wind and collected into snowdrifts by the side of the road.
I pulled the car to the side of the road somewhere northwest of Witchita Falls to take some photos and was immediately hit by the silence of the place. Not an insect or a bird to be heard, just complete deafening silence. My ears pulsed with a low buzz: the sound of my own blood pumping.
Eventually the oceans of cotton finally eased into grassland, punctuated by dry canyons revealing the continued redness of the underlying soil.
We were aiming for a stop at Caprock Canyon State Park, but pulled into The Caprock Cafe for a bite beforehand. It’s not an inviting place on the face of it: a dingy pre-fab building by the side of the road, stained inside with cigarette smoke left over from a time not so long ago when laws were less restrictive. As we walked in, the two locals finishing up their lunch gave us a long evaluative look. I wondered if we’d made a mistake. But Phil’s Famous Chilli is excellent with a quesadilla to dip, and the locals ended up being very chatty after they decided we were OK. I got the feeling that tourists don’t come through very much, especially in winter.
Caprock Canyon itself is beautiful. It’s home to the Texas State Buffalo Herd, which can be seen grazing on the canyon rim (a depressingly small remnant of what used to be a huge number of animals before humans ate them all). It’s been very dry recently, and we could see the char from hazard reduction burns recently conducted by the state parks fire department. As we drove deeper into the valley, we could smell the smouldering in the air.
Not that the smell seemed to bother the resident coterie (offical collective noun) of prarie dogs. Looking like fat little meerkats, they sat up on their haunches as we slowly rolled past, cheeping warnings to each other before scampering into their holes with a hilarious bum-wiggling run.
We drove as far as the paved road could take us and hiked a couple of miles into the canyon, enjoying the towering red rocks on either side and kicking up dust from the clay of the canyon floor. No rattlesnakes were seen (contrary to warning signs), but we did see many cacti, which goes some way to underlining our transition to the Wild West.
We ended up spending longer at Caprock than planned, and the sun was dipping below the horizon as we made our way north to the I-40, excellently accompanied on the stereo by The Man In Black himself.
As we followed the highway into Amarillo both sides of the road were illuminated with a myriad of signs for hotels, motels, diners and fast food places, lighting up the night with a reminder of how much the towns along this road rely on traffic to drive their economies. We sailed on through, crossing from Texas into New Mexico towards our stop for the night.
Day 28 – Tucumcari NM to Monument Valley UT
I-40 follows the path of the old Route-66 and Motel Safari in Tucumcari is a well preserved relic of the Mother Road’s glory days. It’s illuminated with murals and neon, all of the rooms have the official Rt-66 radio station playing vintage rock n’ roll as you enter, and there are a few rusting cars and trucks from the first half of the twentieth century in the car park. The owner is a refugee from the big city who escaped a couple of years ago, buying the motel and moving in with his collection of Elvis vinyl and his boxer pup. The road is quiet in winter, and I got the feeling that the motel owner as well as the proprietor of the weird little souvenier shop next door were grateful for visitors. Kevin, the Instagram-Famous Teepee Curios Dog definitely enjoyed having some new people to make a fuss of him.
Another long day today, but hopefully more interesting country than the previous two.
First stop, the Santa Rosa Blue Hole, a small lake with a very deep bottom connecting to an underground river system and outputting 3000 gallons of water a minute into a stream flowing out of it. It’s one of the few interesting dive sites this far inland and was in use as we wandered around it.
While the I-40 mostly follows the same path as the original Route-66, most of it was not built on top of the old roadway, and in some place the two roads diverges by many miles. As a result, you can pull off the highway and follow the old road past the derelict remnants left behind when the Interstate was built. It’s quite melancholy to see these gas stations, garages and motels in varying states of decay; organs which have been starved of blood for so long that they’ve dried up and become grey and brittle.
The road wound its way across dry grassland under a heavy iron sky. We could see hills in the distance…
… and as we slowly gained height: snow! Not what I was expecting to see in the New Mexico desert.
The road tipped downwards again, losing height as it took us into Albuquerque, home of the 66 Diner, and this monstrosity of a root beer float:
As the afternoon wore on, the country started to get more rugged. Distant mountains on either side of the road drew in, giving us a tantalising taster of the landscape we were aiming for in Arizona and Utah.
Rt-66 is followed by train lines, but lines which seem only to carry freight trains of incredible length. Three big diesel locomotives pulling a hundred cars of shipping containers or ore bins.
The road, too, is an artery of freight, with trucks making up most of the traffic. We saw trucks carrying loads of tyres wider than the lane they were driving in, trucks carrying houses, trucks carrying other trucks stacked like dominoes. Most sinister of all, I saw a truck pulling a low-bed trailer on which was a monolith-like tall oblong of reinforced steel stamped with the Haliburton logo. What was in this ominous container? The Ark Of The Covenant? Secret bioweapons? Racks of Donald Trump clones, insurance against inevitable assassins? We’ll never know.
We crossed into Arizona in the late afternoon…
… and turned off the Interstate, heading north into Navajo country. The heavy skies had turned blue…
… and faded into a beautiful sunset.
Dinner was planned for Burger King in Kayenta. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have put a Burger King onto our itinerary, but this is no normal BK! The owner is the son of a Navajo Code Talker, and has dedicated a large section of the restaurant as an exhibition and memorial.
The Code Talkers were a group of a hundred or so natives who deployed to WWII’s Pacific Theatre with the US Marines to act as human cipher machines, translating orders and reports into their native language before transmitting over radio to other squads. After the war, the Japanese reported that they were able to break all of the other military code systems, but they never even came close to being able to understand Navajo. These were men who owed their country nothing, given the way it had treated them, but signed up to defend it nonetheless. The display cases showed how involved in the combat the Navajo recruits were, with one case showing a collection of Japanese battle flags, still stained with the blood of the soldiers they were taken from.
It was fully dark by the time we drove down from Kayenta into Monument Valley. Even in the moonless night, my peripheral vision could feel the prescense of the huge mesas on either side of the road.
We were in a cabin overlooking the valley, in a pretty sparsely populated spot. We transferred our bags to the cabin, quickly discovering that the -5 degree outside temperature meant nothing to the cabin’s wood-burning stove, which had heated the inside temperature to around 40. I cracked the screen door and left Lana sprawled on the bed in her underwear, sweating, to take a quick walk around outside. As my eyes adjusted, I began to be able to make out the mesas of the valley below, illuminated by a stunning ceiling of stars.
I stared upwards until my neck started to ache and then stepped back indoors. As I was removing my coat and hat, I caught sight of a dark patch moving in the shadows of my peripheral vision and nearly screamed as the dark patch moved towards me and rubbed up against my legs. It was an enterprising cat who, clearly preferring the ridiculously hot fire to the sub-zero temperatures outside, had slunk in through the gap I’d opened in the screen door. I let it warm itsself for a bit in front of the stove before turfing it outside, closing the door to a two inch crack and settling down with a book. Twenty minutes later, the cat scared the shit out of me again as first a paw and then its face appeared at human head height in the gap, having climbed up a chair outside and parkoured onto the wall in an attempt to gain enough leverage to force the door open with its paw.
Day 29 – Monument Valley UT to Page AZ
I had set my alarm for 6:45am so I could get up in time to see the sun rise over the valley. My plan was to bundle up and sit on the verandah of the cabin for an hour or so, listening to music and watching the light change.
I left Lana asleep and stepped outside to the car to find my hat and gloves, only to have my plans interrupted by another surprise animal visitor who tried to jump into the car boot, failed and then playfully chewed on my hand instead. We made friends quickly and I continued my original plan with a new blanket on my lap, who provided a welcome source of warmth (at the cost of a fair amount of fidgeting).
Musical accompaniment to sunrise:
The sunset from last night reversed itself, cycling from deep blue cut with a streak of rust, to rose, to lemon. Finally, the sun illuminated the east sides of the mesas and then rose above the parapets, to glorious daylight.
I took my new friend for a trample through the snow…
…and then very sensibly went back to bed.
Obviously, Monument Valley is too iconic to leave at just a sunrise from a distance. We needed to get amongst the serenity, and that requires going offroad. The Navajo Reservation charges $20 for a self-guided 15-mile rally tour around the valley, through gravel, clay, mud and snow. Our little hire car did an excellent job…
… allowing us to see some sites you’d never get to see from the highway.
It’s hard to show in photographs just how big the monuments actually are; in the photos above, you’re looking at pillars up to 10 miles away. For a bit of an idea as to the scale, check out this video and note how the road is moving by quite quickly, but the towers of rock are barely moving…
… and if you still need more convincing, play a quick game of ‘Spot the Sam’ in the photos below. You’ll need to zoom in to find me.
Having watched the sunrise, and gotten up close to the monuments, I can absolutely understand the spiritual aspects ascribed to this place by the various cultures who have encountered it up to now. It’s humbling to be in the presence of these reminders of how tiny and insignificant humans are compared to geology and to geological time. But as huge as these monuments are, and as long as they’ve been here, they are still being slowly, inexorably eroded away. One day their dust will line the floor of a valley worn flat. Being here to see them as they are now, I can only be grateful.
Out of Monument Valley, then, back into Arizona and west towards Page.
The geology changes, the rocks changing from soft sandstone to pinkish limestone. This is the start of Grand Canyon country, and we could see it start to be reflected (at small scale) around us.
We checked into Shash’Dine, our home for the night and hot-footed it to beat the sunset at Horseshoe Bend. If the landscape around Page was hinting at the Grand Canyon a couple of hundred miles south, Horseshoe Bend was instead trying to blatantly upstage it.
Again, it’s a sight for which photos can’t communicate the scale. We wandered around for an hour or so taking it in, with Lana lending a sympathetic ear to my ranting about the kinds of people who bring their drones to a place like this and interrupt the serenity with their irritating distant-swarm-of-bees noise. I made friends with a Very Good Boy, name of Mr Pickles.
Day 30 – Page AZ to Bryce Canyon UT
Shash’Dine is an eco tourism spot a few miles outside of Page, on a Navajo farmstead. In summer they host campers in teepees, hogans and gypsy caravans but in the depths of winter we were occupying their log cabin and had the place to ourselves. The place is remote and self-sufficient, which means no electricity or running water and outdoor soil toilets. The cabin had a woodburning stove, so washing is done by putting some chunks of ice in a bucket, sticking it on top of the stove and waiting. The payoff for all this: magnificent, bleak solitude and again that incredible ceiling of stars.
The stars did not do much to help, however, when Lana prodded me awake to ask me to stand guard while she stepped out of the cabin to pee on top of some sagebrush. I wasn’t really thinking, so got out of bed wearing only a t-shirt, put my boots on and stepped out of the cabin. The outside temperature had registered on the car’s thermometer a few hours previously as -10, and had definitely dropped since then. Extreme cold on the nether regions is definitely a unique experience, but not one I’ll be aiming to repeat any time soon.
Once again, I set the alarm early to watch the sun rise and was not disappointed.
The fire had died down to embers overnight, but with an influx of oxygen and some skilled poking, I got it going again, in time to warm the cabin as we ate breakfast in bed.
We left Shash’Dine at 8:30am to get to the other side of Page to check into our Antelope Canyon tour. You’ve probably heard of Antelope Canyon, or at least will recognise some of the upcoming pictures; it’s deservedly one of the more iconic sights in Arizona.
From inauspicious beginnings as a cleft in the rock at the end of a dry streambed…
…it turns into a slot canyon just wide enough for two people to pass by each other, half a kilometer long and cut many meters deep into the rock. It’s been eroded over the course of 100 million years by wind and flash floods to form a wondrous array of sinuous curves and waves. As you might imagine, we came away with many photos. I’ve tried to reduce them down, but that was a tough job. To aid my task, I’ve grouped them into categories:
Some people you may or may not recognise
The guide who took us through the canyon was Navajo, and able to explain the significance of the slot canyons in Navajo culture (as the Home Of The Wind Gods) and was also an expert in getting smartphones to take good pictures in the low light conditions deeper into the canyon.
The more arduous cross country drives behind us, our journey today just required a quick trip north; over the state line into Utah again, and up to Ruby’s Inn: the old resort town below the National Park.
En route, we had a chance to see how the Navajo Nation generates much of its electricity…
… and Lake Powell, the reservoir behind the dam. Page has been in drought for the past three years, and it shows in the water levels.
We crossed back into Utah, climbed further up and up, the air getting colder and flora increasingly making way for bare rock, looking like the surface of an alien, barren world.
Until we turned off the road to head up into Bryce and found ourselves in pine forest.
Day 31 – Bryce Canyon UT to Zion UT
With Lana still fighting off the remnants of her cold and being generally weighed down by Cletus, we made the decision that she’d put her feet up by the fire in the hotel lobby while I went for a hike. I drove up into the park itsself, past toll booths which had people in them, but were not actually collecting tolls: people from who were giving up their time to make sure that people had all of the information they needed to enjoy the national park, without the guarantee that they’d ever get paid for that time. The lesson: the posturing, out-of-touch government who are maintaining this shutdown are a bunch of arseholes, the federal employees on the ground who genuinely care about the places they work at and the people who visit them are awesome.
I slowly worked my way up snowy roads, with the car reporting an outside temperature of -4, and parked at Sunset Point. Bryce Canyon is a lot like the Blue Mountains back home, in that you don’t need to gain any height in order to see the views; the road goes around the valley rim, rather than the floor. Here’s what greeted me when I stepped out of the car:
Bryce sits on top of a layer of soft Kayenta Mudstone. It doesn’t take much for it to erode, and over the eons the wind, rain and ice have shaped the mudstone into these stacks of hoodoos. Sometimes pillars, sometimes spires, sometimes arches, sometimes mushrooms.
The hike I’d planned would go down from Sunset Point, into the valley via Navajo Trail, around the Peekaboo Loop and back home via Queen’s Garden. I started out and quickly realised that last night’s snowfall was covering a layer of slick ice in many places. It took me a couple of falls, a bruised bumcheek, and a very tenderised banana in my back pocket to realise that the most grip was to be found on the very edges of the path, where previous snowfalls had not yet been compacted to ice. Things became much easier after that. Navajo Trail descends steeply via a set of switchbacks between the hoodoos. By the time I got to the valley floor, a mixture of extertion and adrenaline had rendered my snow jacket and gloves surplus to requirements: I did the rest of the hike in just a shirt and was still sweaty by the end. The main reason for this contuinued exertion is hidden in the name of ‘Peekaboo Trail’. It climbs up from the valley floor to tease you with a view, before dropping back down and then repeating the process. Even at -4 with a stiff breeze, that’s more than enough to keep me warm!
I got back to the car buzzing with endorphins and drove back down to Ruby’s Inn to get some lunch and collect Lana: it was awesome that even feeling a bit rubbish and firmly against the idea of any exertion she was able to get a taste of the other-worldly landscape.
With the weather starting to close in, and a decent drive ahead of us, we got back on the road.
First a jig north, then a climb east up and over a mountain pass, then a descent in the late afternoon light into a wide glacial valley. There was a translucent mass of cloud settled into the valley, obscuring the horizon with a luminescence provided by the setting sun.
Glorious stuff… until we pulled off the highway to get some fuel. Let’s zoom in on my location history for the day to see where Google Maps decided to take us:
Seems fine, all via marked roads, right? I’m sure State Route 1200W is fine in the summer; Streetview pictures it as a well-laid gravel road:
I’m here to tell you: 1200W in the winter is a half-mile of sheer terror.
I pulled onto it, thinking that half a mile of narrow track with a light covering of snow was easily handled by the brawny Ford Escape. As we proceeded at a sedate pace, I could feel twitchyness from the rear end and a general lack of traction. Abruptly, around half-way in, the car shuddered to a halt. I stepped out and, as my boots sank into mud, I immediately realised why. The light covering of snow concealed a quagmire of wet clay, recently churned up by a heavy tractor. The tractor had left deep ruts in the roadway, removing any grip that used to exist from the gravel, and mixing in a few fallen fence-posts. A horrible feeling gripped my belly. Between us, we managed to move the fence-post which was blocking the rear wheels, but the tyres were slick with clay. Things were not looking good. I put the car back into drive and applied some throttle: wheels spun uselessly. That panicked feeling in my belly intensified. Reverse: thank glorious fuck, some movement. Drive again: oh yes, nearly out of the dip. Reverse once more and we were out! We’d won the Battle Of Fence-Post Dip, but we quickly realised that we were far from free and clear. A choice then: reverse back down a narrow track with a minimum of clearance and the terrible handling you get when you’re driving backwards through thick mud, or…
I reversed to give us a run up, put the car into drive, aimed for the snow rather than the mud and applied some throttle. Lana went very quiet, my knuckles went very white as I gripped the steering wheel, and I channelled all my knowledge from Richard Burns Rally 2 on Playstation as we barrelled through the dip and on down the track. The back end of the car twitched as the rear tyres sought the equilibrium of the tractor ruts, but the front managed to hang on to the more grippy areas at the edge and, after another quarter-mile of desperate hope and my heart thumping in my chest, we emerged onto a paved road. I pulled over for us to catch our breaths and let the adrenaline dissapate and we both broke in disbelieving laughter. The half-mile of terror already felt like a surreal nightmare. How could we, two devout members of the Church Of Google, have been so misdirected? In the end though, we survived: no being stranded on a Utah farm road, no damage to the car. Just a whole bunch of mud that I doubt the car hire company would be happy about. We’ll need to find a valet service in Las Vegas.
Day 32 – A Day Off
Our recent spate of early starts, coupled with the long hours of driving and Lana being sick had left us both knackered, so we agreed that we wouldn’t set an alarm for today. Clearly we needed the sleep, because we didn’t wake until nearly midday. Not much of an issue, as the clouds were low in the valley and dumping down a good amount of rain. Rest day? Sounds good.
We ate, watched the rain, went for a drive…
…watched some more rain, ate some more, played Scrabble (Lana won) and went to bed blissfully early.
Day 33 – Some Rain, Some Shine
Keen on making the most of our time in Zion, I once again rose early, ate some quick breakfast and left Lana chilling back at the Lodge while I headed out to hike the 453m vertical ascent up to Angel’s Landing.
The morning started looking not much better than yesterday: low cloud and a constant light drizzle. Although I began the walk in a raincoat, I removed it pretty early on and opted for getting damp instead of overheating.
Weirdly, as I climbed, I found after a while that I wasn’t actually getting any wetter. And thus, I was lead to the discovery of something I’m tentatively titling ‘Warner’s General Theory of Moistness’. In a nutshell: if the rate at which water is evaporated from the body exceeds the rate at which water is landing on the body, you’ll stay dry. Let’s dive in to…
Rainfall (defined hereafter as ) is traditionally measured in , a measure of the height of water collecting in a container of any size. To find out how much water is soaking into my trousers, we need first to convert it from to . When it comes down to it, I’m basically a cylinder of meat, with a width of . We can work out how much rain is collecting in the circle described by my cross-sectional area every second (in , of course), with the formula
- is the volume of water collected in ,
- is the diameter of the cylinder (i.e. shoulder width – in my case ) in ,
- is the height of the cylinder in , i.e. rainfall, .
Of course, I’m not fully circular, am I? I’m a physically fit human specimen. We need to factor that in: we’ll define fitness as , a constant. The closer is to , the more my cross-section resembles a circle.
So now we can calculate out the amount of rainfall hitting my body every second (we’ll use the symbol ) as:
So we know how much water we’re dealing with, but how do I know if I’ll stay dry? There are two ways that the water is ending up anywhere other than soaking into my shirt: either it’s evaporating due to my body heat, or it’s soaking into my hair. We’ll do the easy part first:
is the absorbency of my hairdo, in
To work out how much water I’m capable of evaporating from my skin, we need , the amount of energy I’m producing by metabolising my breakfast pancakes (in ) plus an alternative measure of fitness, : the percentage of that energy which is going into pushing me up the mountain, anything left over is pure heat baby.
In order to evaporate water, you need to put the equivalent energy into it as would be required to raise its temperature to 100 degrees celsius. That amount of energy can be calculated using the specific-heat formula:
- is the specific heat of the substance in
- is mass of the substance in
- is the temperature differential in Kelvin ()
then is the energy (in Joules) required to raise the substance by the given temperature differential.
For water, is , but we’ll keep it defined as for neatness. The temperature differential will be 100 degrees minus the current temperature of the water (let’s define that now as ). Thus:
Or, to rearrange the formula to give how much water is evaporated for a given value of :
Factoring in my hairdo, current exertion and physical fitness:
Great, that about does it. Puttin it all together, we can confidently state that the water soaking in (a nice big ) can be calculated as
If , I’m staying dry. Of course, this model does not account for lack of evaporation capability at ankle height and thus wet trouser legs. For a full dicussion of that problem, please see the forthcoming ‘Warner’s Special Theory of Trouser Moistness’.
Buoyed by science, I reached the top (down to a t-shirt by now) quicker than I’d expected and was rewarded with some incredible views.
I did strongly consider making the final ascent up to the summit of Angel’s Landing (probably another 20m up), but thought better of it when I saw people putting on crampons and roping up.
I descended a lot more quickly (and with less exertion) than I ascended and headed back to the lodge for some well-earned lunch. The afternoon’s activities: more hiking, this time with Lana.
We kicked off the afternoon with a short hike up to Lower Emerald Pool, and its waterfall…
…then drove up the mountain and through the Mt Carmel tunnel to reach the head of the Canyon Overlook trail.
It’s aptly named:
Day 34 – Zion UT to Las Vegas NV
It was pretty obvious from the moment we entered the lobby that the aim for our Las Vegas hotel – “the most ridiculous one possible, please” – had been well satisified.
Things only got more ridiculous when we found our suite.
No time to enjoy the opulence though, we had more opulence booked elsewhere. Here, in fact:
Spa day, couple’s massage with hot oil treatment, his and hers facials. What to focus on? Maybe the hot oil dribbling being dribbled onto your hairline, worked in with a scalp massage, then the whole head wrapped in a moist hot towel. Maybe the part where they also wrapped your feet in hot towels. Maybe even the part where cool slices of cucumber were placed on my eyes to block the light while a strong-fingered therapist ‘cleared my pores of obstructions’ (she squeezed my blackheads: I paid someone to pop my zits).
Unfortunately, given the nature of the experience, I was unable to take photos, so I’ve lifted some off the Encore’s website. I will say, however, that believe it or not, these photos do represent the spa in real life. Insanity.
In the evening, a steak dinner followed by a wander down the strip…
…to the iconic Bellagio. Listen to this
as you look at the photo below and you’ll know what I mean:
We had a show booked in the theatre at the Bellagio, Cirque Du Soliel’s O. A review from Lana is forthcoming.
Day 35 – Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon, you say. Isn’t that a bit far from Las Vegas? Depends how you get there!
We flew out low over the desert…
…over the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead.
And into the Grand Canyon!
And when I say into, I do mean into. We landed down at the canyon floor for a spot of lunch…
…before spinning the rotors up again for the trip back:
The feeling one gets, whipping over mountains and desert at low height, while the pilot’s iPod plays Danger Zone is one that’s going to be hard to beat.
Ugh. What a day.
We got back to the hotel as the sun was going down and went out to eat some very expensive but ultimately not particularly memorable steak and partake of an equally expensive and non-memorable Old Fashioned cart. It’s basically the ‘make your guacamole’ at the table thing, except with booze. Tonight’s dinner was confusing for me, in that this is the third time in the trip that I’ve spoken what I thought was perfectly intelligible English to someone and been met with blank stares.
[INT RESTAURANT, EARLY EVENING]
SAM (a tall, dashing Englishman with just a touch of salt-and-pepper in his hair): Hello, we have a booking for two people at 6pm under ‘Sam Warner’.
RESTAURANT HOST stares blankly
SAM: A booking, under ‘Sam Warner’
RESTAURANT HOST: (ignoring her booking screen) Two people? I think we have a table, I’ll see if I can fit you in.
SAM: We called ahead; you should have a booking under my name.
RESTAURANT HOST: (continuing to ignore her computer) Sure, I’ll try to find a table for you, we’re not booked out tonight.
SAM is exasperated
LANA (An Australian-Cypriot brunette. Fiery intelligence in her eyes offsets her classic Mediterranean beauty): No no, we have a reservation.
RESTAURANT HOST: Oh you have a reservation?
SAM seethes quietly in the background
RESTAURANT HOST: (continuing) For two people? Under what name?
The scene continues in this way until the relentless march of time and entropy reduces the restaurant and all characters to dust and the universe is cold, dark and quiet.
After dinner, we took a Lyft to the rough side of town, and the Las Vegas Neon Graveyard. It turns out that most of the neon signs for which Vegas is famous are not in fact owned by the establishments which display them, but by the sign-makers. The signs are built, leased and maintained, then returned to the factory at end-of-life to be reclaimed. If the sign-makers don’t want a sign, then it often ends up at the Neon Graveyard.
We took a night tour of the publicly accessible part of the establishment, where they’ve laid out a walking trail of Las Vegas history from the forties to now, with many signs restored to working order.
There were some fascinating and colourful stories behind many of the signs and their establishments, a reminder that Vegas has only comparitively recently become associated with The Strip.
And on that subject, we travelled back home via Fremont Street, heart of the old Las Vegas downtown. Unfortunately, what’s left of the old feel of downtown has been obscured by alcoholic slushie bars, the associated hordes of drunk tourists and the people trying to hustle them. We didn’t stay long.
The penultimate long day of driving: a morning to get across the rest of the Mojave, followed by an afternoon crossing the highlands south of the Sierra Nevada and finally reaching the coast at Cambria.
This area is known to me…
…who did it better? Hard to say.
The Mojave is long, brown and dry, but as we passed into late afternoon and started descending towards the coast, each successive hill became slightly less brown and slightly more green until finally, around Bakersfield, we were driving past verdant fields and happily grazing cows. Around twenty minutes of driving is all it took to transition from arid desert to lush farmland.
And finally, the coast. We checked into our bed-and-breakfast, situated right on a bluff overlooking the water. On the walk down the road to a restaurant for dinner we could hear the crashing surf and smell the salt. An odd feeling to look at the water and know that it was an entirely different ocean to the one we’d last seen many kilometers before in Florida, and at the same time knowing that on the other side of this body of water was Australia, and home.
Grand plans for today. We could have driven straight from Las Vegas to Davis, our final destination, but I was keen to take the opportunity to drive California State Route 1, the Pacific Highway.
Winding coastal roads, dramatic scenery, the beauty of Big Sur National Park. A solid plan. The day started beautifully, with migrating whales visible in the ocean from the road just outside the hotel. But a few kilometers outside of Cambria: fog. Thick and low, obscuring any visibility outside of ten meters from the car. I’m sure Big Sur is stunning, but we didn’t get to see it today. Next time!
Peter and Gilly are very dear friends of my family. I’ve known them since not long after I was born, and grew up with their two girls until the family moved to Davis, California when I was fourteen or so. Since then, we’ve been lucky enough to catch up with these lovely people pretty regularly. The plan to ski at Lake Tahoe fell through with Lana’s pregancy, so Pete and Gilly invited us to stay with them in Davis instead.
Today’s adventures are probably best themed as ‘California Gold Rush’. We visited Sutter’s Fort, a stockade in what is now downtown Sacramento, but what was then barely settled open country and farmland. It was Sutter who commissioned the sawmill near Coloma which found the first flakes of gold in 1848 and precipitated the gold rush, bringing around 300,000 people to California and kick-starting the state’s economic growth.
And of course, after Sutter’s Fort, where to go but Coloma? They’ve rebuilt the sawmill, but the real attraction of the place is the rushing river and the wooden hills on either side of it.
I can’t overstate how good it is, after weeks eating on the road or at restaurants, to have home-cooked food which features vegetables as more than just an afterthought or a garnish. My body was crying out for greens and Gilly delivered. So good.
After dinner, a wonder of modern cinema. Before Michael Bay lost his way and started substituting CGI explosions for star-power and excellent one liners, he directed his masterpiece, The Rock.
It’s a movie I’ve seen upwards of 15 times before, but am always happy to watch again. Especially now, when research on Alcatraz is very timely (see later).
We drove out northwest from Davis, hitting the coast above San Fransisco at Muir Woods National Monument. Named for John Muir, the naturalist and adventurer who was instrumental in preserving the natural beauty of California and the rest of the United States for the public, this forest is the best way to get your fill of the mighty Redwood if you can’t make it futher north to Redwoods National Park.
Mmmm. Yes. Smells of trees. Nature batteries: overflowing.
From Davis down to San Francisco. The most efficient route would have us going via the Bay Bridge, but we took the longer route: around the bay via San Jose. To see the Apple campus in nearby Cupertino? No – to see the Winchester Mystery House.
This sprawling mansion was built over the course of many years by Sarah Winchester, widow and inheritor of the Winchester Rifle fortune. She was one of the richest people in the nation but seemed to be an agoraphobe, mostly keeping to herself and only ever seen outside the house in black mourning garb. She was a generous to her staff and to various causes but spent most of that vast fortune on an unending series of building works, extending her mansion to become a warren of oddly shaped rooms and winding corridors.
The house was still being worked on when she died and remains frozen in time, although her greedy heirs did seek to make something of their inheritance by selling off all of the furniture.
… but it’s not the furniture that we’d come to see. We knew about the house because of the artefacts left from Sarah Winchester’s self-architecture: stairs to nowhere; windows in the floor; doors opening to a three-storey drop or onto blank walls.
There’s a legend associated with the house since Sarah Winchester was alive: that the labyrinth she built had a purpose. The legend says that she was beset by legions of ghosts, those killed by the rifle which had made her late husband’s fortune. The house was deliberately designed to ward off the malevolent spirits, or perhaps to trap them.
We ourselves found some evidence for the rumours:
…but ultimately the experience presented Sarah Winchester as a spiritualist in deep mourning. The more sinister undertones seem undeserved.
From one Victorian Gothic mansion to another: our bed and breakfast in San Francisco!
We dropped our belongings off the in the room and headed straight out to see some of the city before the sunset. Just around the corner: the famous ‘painted ladies’, a row of beautiful and very San Francisco wooden houses:
We strolled from park to park as the light faded and eventually found ourselves at the obvious choice for dinner when in SF: a Polynesian-island-themed restaurant complete with lagoon and half-hourly thunderstorms.
I personally think Lana makes a very beautiful Polynesian islander and was only too happy to drink the necessary number of cocktails to complete her hairpiece. She seems less impressed for some reason.
Time to tackle the most touristy part of the city: Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39. It’s the Disneyland of SF, with the appropriate amount of bad food and tacky souvenirs. The main attraction, however, is the resident population of sea lions. Like them, we lazed in the sun, watching them wrestle and kick each other off the decking and into the water. The show is well worth the impressive stench should you find yourself downwind.
We walked westwards around the shoreline from Pier 39, in the direction of Golden Gate park and the always-stunning Palace Of Fine Arts.
A Lyft back to the Embarcadero dropped us at a basque restaurant (second one of the trip, for some reason) in time for pintxos and a drink before we were due at the late opening of the Exploratorium. Imagine the interactive exhibits of London’s Science Museum, but filled with tipsy adults instead of sugar-fueled children. To be honest the overall effect is much the same.
An early-ish start to our last day, to catch the boat out to Alcatraz. I’ve travelled to San Francisco a few times now, but for some reason have never found the time to visit its most famous tourist attraction (especially suprising given my aforementioned love of The Rock).
We weren’t impacted too heavily by the government closure, with most areas remaining open and explorable.
Two things struck me most about the island. Firstly, how green it is. Trusted prisoners were allowed to indulge in some gardening and their work lives on in the lush array of foliage and now-wild flowers.
Secondly: the proximity to the city. From the bleachers in the exercise yard, inmates would have been able to see the boats sailing across the bay and out to sea via the Golden Gate bridge. They could hear the sound of celebration drift across the water every new year’s eve. It must have been torture… but then again a lot of them did kill people and do other unsavoury things.
Back on the mainland, a seafood dinner…
…and to the airport…
42 days. 5600 miles (9000km) of driving, taking us through 22 states*. 5kg of weight gain for me, and zero for Lana. 9 total gifts purchased, of which 5 are for our unborn child.
*In alphabetical order: AL, AZ, CA, CO, CT, FL, GA, LA, MD, MA, MS, NV, NJ, NM, NY, NC, PA, RI, SC, TX, UT, VA