Published: September 18th 2009September 15th 2009
Aside from Belize with its strong Caribbean influence not a whole lot changes travelling from one Central American country to another. The attractive public spaces and town squares I couldn't stop photographing when we first got to San Cristobal in Mexico with their pastel coloured colonial churches and buildings are to be found somewhere in every Central American country. As you cross borders the jungle scenery and what lives in their doesn't change much from one country to the next. Basically Cental America is hot, and green. You could say the same about South East Asia, but in South East Asia cultures do change markedly from one country to the next. For example Thailand and Cambodia share a land border yet the Thai people and Khmer people of Cambodia look totally different and their cultures are separate. You don't really sense that moving from one Central American country to the next.
We had planned to travel down to and maybe beyond Colombia in South America, but we had a change of plan and decided that after a beach holiday in Tulum, Mexico where we'd already made plans to meet up with my mum for two weeks we'd move on from
this part of the world.
Our round the world airline ticket is fixed to leave the Americas from Los Angeles. So while I was looking at a map on the internet to see how far Tulum in Mexico might be from Los Angeles I noticed something. I noticed that the next state along from Southern California and LA is Arizona.
Arizona, the realization that some of the Earth's biggest draw geological wonders were on the way sort of
to LA made it just too impossible to resist going, what else can you do? You might never be back this way again, you have to do it.
When we arrived at Phoenix airport, Arizona I was feeling ill from something I ate in Mexico so I sat down and Lynn went to pick up the hire car. When she came back she told me the guy on the desk had given her a free upgade from the compact car we'd booked over the internet. The result was the metallic blue Chrysler PT Cruiser that's shown in some of the photos here. I'm not usually one to be overly impressed by shallow materialistic things like nice shiny cars, but man
I loved driving this one, see how quickly I'll sell out!
So we picked up the lovely car and drove to Sedona. Lynn went to check us in at the super 8 motel and returned telling me that again she'd been given a free room upgrade from the guy on the desk, and not only that but we'd only have to pay the weekday rate even though it was a weekend. I'm scratching my head here, just what can it be that women have that men don't? When I check-in I get overcharged.
Sedona is understandably dwalfed by the international reputation of the Grand Canyon only an hour and a half away by car, but it is a fantastic place in its own right. Set in a semi-arid landscape of red rock hills and escarpments Sedona sits in a picturesque valley. Any car journey or walk a few minutes from the town centre reveals a landscape punctuated by these improbable looking red rock monoliths in the photos here. Monumental structures of red stone that seem to rise out of the Earth of themselves and glow a burnt orange to deep red in the light of the sun. So
many million years of erosion have shaped this other-worldly landscape that leaves you standing, staring and wondering how the process happened. Of course this is America and a few optomistic people believe it all has to be the work of space aliens. There is a tounge-in-cheek alien theme running throughout the town and on the back of this the whole might of the new age merchandising machine is in full effect. Shops and businesses with names like 'The Sedona Healing Garden' and 'The Mystical Bazaar', selling overpriced new age kitsch like healing crystals to people with more money than they deserve. You can even have your aura photographed in Sedona, is it possible to photograph something with no physical substance? You have to doubt it.
In a small way Sedona reminds me of Keswick in the lake district in that there are trails leading more or less from the town centre and all of them are different and worthwhile walking. We only had a couple of days in Sedona but walked what we could, all the trails were different with fantastic views. One trail we did is called 'The West Fork of Oak Creek'
As I was lacing my
boots the car thermometor read 80 degrees at 9.15am. I was wondering just how hot it would get over the six miles as the day progressed. But the fresh desert air and the dry Arizona heat make walking easy. Compared to the humidity of being in Tulum where we'd just come from in Mexico where walking just a mile in the afternoon heat made you feel like you might expire this was a breeze, despite the levels the mercury hits in Arizona.
The West Fork of Oak Creek trail follows the meandering course of a stream at the bottom of a canyon until the canyon narrows and the water becomes too deep to walk in. Walking the canyon floor reminded me a lot of walking in Yosemite valley when we were in California in May. The building sound of a breeze whipping into the canyon rustling the tops of the higest pines. Walking into glades of static sun heated air thick with the fragrance of pines. A pleasing warm dry forest smell I think might be particular to the woods of the North American outdoors, pristine, unpoluted. Takes the swing out of your stride and makes you want to sit
in the sun and breathe it all afternoon.
The Grand Canyon
I read that 4.8 million people visit the Grand Canyon every year and of those people 95% visit the South rim only. Thinking it might be crowded when we went I thought we'd visit the South rim one day and the lesser visited North rim another 200 miles and 5 hours away by car the next. When we got to the South rim gate I was surprised that we were only the sixth of six vehicles waiting in line, I had expected a long queue. I found out later that this is the best time of year to visit because the American school kids are back at school, also visitor numbers are down by half this year because of the recession. We drove a 25 mile section of the canyon stopping at the various look out points. You're probably not supposed to do it but it's possible to wander off on your own around the canyon rim until you are entirely alone and out of earshot of the road and that's what we did.
Planning this trip to the Grand Canyon I read a lot of
reviews on the internet and time and again the words 'nothing quite prepares you for your first view of the Grand Canyon' would come up. People we'd spoken to in the last six weeks or so who'd been to the Grand Canyon also repeated these exact words. A couple of people told me they even cried at their first sight of the canyon.
Thinking of all this and the shots of the canyon I'd seen on the internet my head was fizzing the last 20 miles to the canyon rim. I must admit I was full of butterflies like a kid on the way to Blackpool pleasure beach, when Blackpool pleasure beach seemed exotic back in the 1970's, that is.
When I finally saw the canyon I was struck, just as people told me I would be by the scale of it. When you look accross the canyon at trees on the other side they are actually 10 or more miles away. When you look down you see canyons within canyons all the way down, it's 1.6 kms to the Colorado river at the very bottom.
It's not a view to jump out of your car snap with your camera
and race off to the next viewpoint. It's a view you need to take your time with, to let your mind absorb all the information your eyes are processing.
We walked off around the rim, found a spot and sat in the silence saying nothing. Even Lynn went quiet, briefly.
I didn't burst into tears but the Grand Canyon is an evocative place and it made me contemplative. After a while there lazing in the sun my thoughts were these, I thought "Everything that my eyes can see here looks exactly the same today as it did 5000 years ago when the pharaohs were building the pyramids. The same when stonehenge was buing built and before and after the last ice age. Probably the same 100,000's years ago when the first primates climbed down from the trees and started walking on two legs. And it will look the same long after we're all dead. It's a sight that makes you consider your own insignificance and the insignificance of all the petty nonsense that people think is so important today. Everything today will come and go and almost nothing will be remembered in even a 100 years from now, not
even a hairs breadth in the time scale of the planet"
That star gazing moment over with we got back in the car and drove. Leaving the canyon by the East Gate the road winds down a couple of hundred feet very quickly. You leave behind temperate deciduous forest turn a bend or two and literally a whole new vista opens up. A vast treeless low scrub plain. It's Navajo land, a native American Indian Reservation. You can drive for hours and it's mostly desert. You didn't have to be there when the deal was done to work out why they weren't given say, California.
I'd read about a place on Navajo land where there are fossilized dinosaur footprints. It's close to Tuba City (not really a city, more a crossroards in the desert) and where we were staying that night. We found the turn off and saw an Indian guy up ahead waving us down. I knew we'd need a guide as there's no way you'd know where to look yourself in the desert, so I stopped the car. Unfortunately the poor man had been drinking the firewater and was pissed out of his head. So we
west fork of oak creek trail
you can see the curve in the wall of the canyon shaped by flood waters over time
drove on some and the next person to approach the car was also carrying a bottle of something, so I thought, maybe we'll leave it today and come back in the morning when everyone is sober.
It had been a loooooong hot day and we were hoping for a cold beer in Tuba City, but driving around saw no sign of anything that might have been a bar. I tried the 7 eleven but there was no alcohol in the fridge. I asked the cashier where could I buy a beer? And she answered me a little coolly saying "not in this town". I stared back at her vacantly for about a second trying to decipher the slight edge in her tone and then the seeds of comprehension started to bloom in my mind "this must be a dry town". I remembered a TV programme I'd seen a few years ago about how alcohol and drugs has caused a lot of social problems in native american communities.
Whilst driving this area we've seen some sorry looking clusters of homes in some hostile looking country on Navajo land. I don't know enough about the history or culture to make any
The red planet diner
no one can can give the public space alien tacky as well as the Americans, they're the masters of the art.
assumptions, but it looks like it might be tough to be young out here. The chief or the elders or whoever have decided to call time on alcohol being available and, it's their land, their rules.
So sparkling water it is then. Have a coke and a smile and and early night. Later I found out it's illegal to be even caught holding a beer in Tuba City.
The next morning we went back to the Dinosaur Footprints and it was a whole different experience. The guide who showed us around, his grandmother had been the one to discover (or rediscover) the footprints in the 1940's and he knew much about the land in that area as it was his home. He showed us a place in the desert where there are different dinosaur tracks going in every direction and criss crossing one another. I'd guess it was once the scene of a muddy watering hole, probably much like a scene on the African savannah today, only with all the dinosaurs of yesterday coming to drink at this one. Their footprints dried in mud then fossilised into rock forever. You can place your own foot in the depression left
by another creatures foot that has been extinct for millions of years. It's mind blowing to think of that, and to think of what the world might have looked like right there and then through the eyes of the dinosaur the moment the footprint was made. It wouldn't have been desert like today, the part of the earths crust that is Arizona today was once further South, nearer to the equator in the tropics. There are also the partially exposed fossilized skeletons of dinosaurs here poking through the dust, and one huge although difficult to make out footprint of a T-rex, a metre from heel to toe. The guide told us that every time he walks out into the desert he finds other bits and pieces, footprints and fossils, he showed us a table full of fossils he couldn't name, a lot of them looked like sea creatures to me.
That day we drove on to the Grand Canyon North Rim and stayed at the only accommodation option actually on the rim itself. The North Rim Lodge is a grand old building of stone and oak from another age, the dining room like a banqueting hall with high ceilings
All the houses in Sedona are painted this beige brown colour or a forest green colour, it must be law, so as not to upset the colour ambience of the valley probably, it's a good idea.
and a glass sided wall with views directly over the canyon. You can if you book about a year in advance and have the money stay in a log cabin right on the rim, but there are cheaper motel rooms in a separate building in the woods which is where we stayed.
The glory of the North Rim Lodge is an outdoor sundeck right on the rim itself. We sat down there at about 3pm on some comfortable wicker chairs and while we were swooning over the view a waitress came up and asked "would we like to see the wine list?" I thought "well, if you're going to insist". So we sat there for the rest of the day drinking Californian Merlot and gushing over how the setting sun changed the light inside the canyon as the day turned to night. Also we chatted with the ever changing neighbours on the wicker chairs either side of us. Good natured American retirees mostly who simply refuse to stop talking. The North Rim is over 8,000 feet above sea level and it does get pretty cool when the sun goes down. So on one walled side of the sundeck they stoke
up a big log fire for the diehards who haven't finished their wine yet. Excellent forward thinking.
Next day we walked a trail on the rim called the 'Uncle Jim Trail'. Back in the day when it was the duty of all red blooded men with big moustaches to blow away anything on four legs, Uncle Jim in a misguided attempt at conservation shot all 500 plus mountain lions in the Grand Canyon, to protect the deer! oh dear. There are no lions left. Still they named a trail after him and it's a good one. A five mile walk through pine and aspen forest that comes out at the midpoint with another sublime overview of the canyon. We saw no other people on the trail all morning, very peaceful.
After this we drove a long way to overnight in another small desert town called Kayenta, for no other reason than it's proximity to Monument Valley on the Utah border that we planned to visit the following morning. Anyone who grew up watching the old cowboy movies will have seen Monument Valley as it was often used as a set in the John Wayne and Clint Eastwood era
films. There's an 18 mile dirt road that you can drive yourself at Monument Valley, or you can pay and a Navajo guide who will take you round in an open-sided vehicle. The advantages of using the guide is that their vehicles go off road to restricted areas and of course they can tell you a lot about the geology of how the landscape was formed and the names and significance of the individual monoliths in Navajo culture. He wasn't cheap, but it's a long way to come and not do it right so we used a guide. I think it was worthwhile because of the different angles we got to photograph the scenery you wouldn't get driving the self drive trail. The Monument Valley landscape is much like that around Sedona, only more Monumental.
There was one more thing I just had to see on the drive back down through the State, a meteor crater near Flagstaff. Fifty thousand years ago a meteor they estimate was 150 feet wide hit the surface of the earth in the Arizona desert at 26,000 miles per hour. The heat generated by the impact melted most of the meteor and turned what
remained into fragments of silica and minerals found nowhere else on Earth except at the sites of underground nuclear testing.
The photo you are able to take of the crater up close from the viewing area on the crater rim shows no scale, because it does not capture the context of the crater in the surrounding desert. But from ariel photos I saw you get the true picture, a perfect bowl shape in a vast totally flat desert plain, exactly like photos of craters on the moon. Also there's nothing in the crater so it's hard to get an idea of depth from the photo I took, but it's actually 550 feet deep.
That was the end of six very full days in Arizona. We had one last night in Sedona where we slept the sleep of the dead, then flew to LA and out of America the next day. More reasons to like Arizona
Some of the grizzly wild West place names you see by the side of the road
Horse thief basin
Dead horse state park
Bloody basin road
There are more photos below