Published: September 19th 2011August 23rd 2011
The last country on our around the world adventure is America. To get there took two flights with Air Malaysia. The first, a six hour flight from Kuala Lumpur to Taipei where we would get off and, after a one hour stopover, hop back on the same plane for another twelve hours across the Pacific to Los Angeles.
Lining up to check in, the airline was not shy about advertising the fact that it is one of only seven airlines in the world to be rated five star and that they are constantly found to have the best cabin staff. Sadly this did not extend to their check in staff, where a KPI of dealing with just two passengers per hour still appeared to be a struggle. Even issuing the right tickets appeared a challenge - had we not checked before walking away Claire would have enjoyed the comfort of two seats on the plane and Rich would have been left stranded in Malaysia.
The flights were fine, only noteworthy for some big turbulence; three miserable meals (even by airline standards) but made better by being served a Magnum mini!
However, US immigration was much more eventful. On landing Claire joked that it couldn't take as long as the Russia-Mongolia border crossing and Rich added that they would turn us away for having not printed hard copies of our ESTA visa waivers. Claire was wrong and Rich was right - two hours of queueing to get through immigration was followed by Rich being selected for some special treatment and whisked off to a separate room for not having a printed version of his ESTA. After an hour with an immigration officer on a power trip (asking questions such as "How do you fancy your chances of getting into the country today?"
) we were eventually let through immigration only to be grilled further by customs - "Exactly how many companies do you audit, ma'am?"
Following a good night's sleep in an airport hotel we picked up a rental car and started what is probably best described as a whistle stop tour of the main attractions of the western states of America. First stop was Las Vegas, and what a great first stop it was...
As is so often said, Vegas really does rise up out of nowhere - a desert oasis of entertainment and sin! With his addictive personality it was a given that Rich would feel at home, but Claire also appreciated it for what it was
Starting off with our hotel, checking into the Imperial Palace on The Strip we were upgraded to a suite. Apparently this is not a completely uncommon thing (a third of the rooms in Vegas at any one time are freebies) but it was still a nice surprise. The room was a little bit past its heyday, but was large enough for us to practice pitch the tent that we had just bought between the king size bed and the jacuzzi - both of which had ceiling mirrors above them...
Gambling wise, we'll cut to the chase - the house won. With the budget we set ourselves it was only worth walking away if it was going to be a big win. Sadly for Rich, lucky 23 didn't come up often enough on the roulette and for Claire doubling her money on blackjack was not satisfying enough to walk away with. In the end we walked away with a $1 chip as a souvenir - well worth it!
Other highlights of Vegas were a day trip to the iconic Hoover Dam, which was a bit of an engineering fix satisfied for Rich, and the fantastic show put on by the fountains in the lake in front of the Bellagio. The fountain jets; mist sprays and lights are choreographed to different pieces of music and were so spectacular that we hung around for half an hour by the lake to watch two consecutive shows.
Our next destination was the Grand Canyon and required our first long slog drive. Fortunately, due to picking up the car in California, there was no extra charge for an additional driver and so we were able to share all of the driving. That said, none of the driving was particularly hard. There were just plenty of long, long, straight roads.
It was during our long drives that we gained an appreciation for how big America is. Not only were we going large distances between places, but also larges ups and downs. Having started in Los Angeles near the coast, by the time we got to the Grand Canyon we were 8,000 feet above sea level and had climbed and rolled down many big hills along the way to get there. To put some of them into perspective, we did a few 8% downgrades that lasted for over ten miles. That's a height drop of over 4,200 feet. By comparison, the top of Ben Nevis is at 4,409 feet. Simply put, we stuck the car into neutral and free-wheeled for what was the equivalent of going from the highest point in the UK down to sea level...
If those are impressive numbers, the Grand Canyon offered plenty more. Over a six million year period the canyon was formed by rocks enduring the erosive power of the Colorado River. It averages ten miles across from rim to rim and at the bottom exposes rocks that are over two billion years old - half of the age of the Earth!
On our way to Vegas we had bought everything that we would need to do a good spot of comfortable camping: the aforementioned tent; an inflatable queen size mattress and pump; an all-in-one propane cooker; and a sufficient range cooking utensils to allow an array of meals to be cooked.
Setting up camp within the Grand Canyon National Park by the south rim made it very easy to explore the canyon. Hiking from the rim down to the river is an eight mile hike, but during the summer months it is advised not to attempt to do this in one day - let alone there and back. Therefore, we opted for a couple of shorter hikes to get our fill of the views.
The first was the Bright Angel Trail, one of the rim to river routes. Setting out early, we chose to do a six mile round trip down to one of the rest houses and back up. The challenge was (with it being a rather large hole in the ground) the up and down bit - the height difference between the rim and where we turned around was over 2,000 feet!
The added difficulty factor is the heat, which is greater within the walls of the canyon. One man that we used as a pacesetter on our way back up said that the thermometer that he had seen at the rest house was already at 43 celsius at nine o'clock in the morning!
We were therefore quite happy when we completed the walk within four hours. It's fair to say that it is something that we probably would not have been able to achieve three and a half months ago. Even saying that, the sun had completely knocked us for six and we really couldn't do much else for the rest of the day...
The next day we did a somewhat easier walk along the rim of the canyon. Although it was a couple of miles longer, the gradient was a lot more forgiving and allowed us plenty of opportunities to take in the views. With it being a much clearer day than the day before some of these were truly exceptional. It seems stupid to say, but the canyon is HUGE! Admittedly it is the name, but even with that rather large clue the actual scale is something that needs to be seen to be fully appreciated. The awe of the view was definitely addictive and even when we were leaving we stopped the car several times to say our good-byes and enjoy the last few glimpses as we headed east.
Moving on, our next destination was the Colorado Rockies. To break up the 750 mile drive we stopped off for a night next to the Arches National Park in Utah. Getting there took us through Monument Valley. Both offered impressive landscapes and plenty of photo opportunities - the Arches is the largest concentration of sandstone arches in North America, whilst the floor of Monument Valley is punctuated with several vast sandstone buttes.
Monument Valley is the more famous of the two as it is a popular Hollywood set: it has featured in westerns galore; Tom Cruise climbs one of the buttes at the beginning of Mission Impossible II; Marty McFly time travels back there in the DeLorean in Back to the Future III; Thelma and Louise drive through it; and Tom Hanks stops his coast to coast running there in Forrest Gump. Perhaps all of that contributes to why U.S. Route 163 is included on the route plan for so many road trips...
Completing a busy first week for us in America was the Rocky Mountains. Spending a couple of days camping there was beautiful. At the end of the summer everything was lush and green and we were blessed with some great weather.
The road through the national park is something else - it goes up and over the mountains with the top peaking at over 12,000 feet. One night we drove up to the top with a takeaway pizza (FYI - UK Dominoes is much better) and stared up at the stars. At that height the stars were stunning rivalled those that we saw in the Mongolian wilderness - we even managed to see a spot a couple of satellites rushing across the night sky...
One day we packed a picnic and set out to walk a six mile circular trail up to Cub Lake. Before setting out we we checked the local bear situation with a knowledgable individual at the ranger station and put Claire's mind at rest. Even though this was one of the lower trailheads in the park, we could still feel a shortness of breath due to the altitiude as we made our way around.
The first half of the trail was through woods (bear territory), but on the downward leg it opened out into some gorgeous alpine meadows (also bear territory). Warm sun, flower drenched ground and the fresh smell of pine (one of Rich's favourite smells) - it was perfect! Claire even managed to forget about the bears...
With a few more national parks left to visit in the second half of our loop of the western states of the America, there was plenty more to look forward to...