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Posts Tagged ‘Arizona’


The idea for this trip came thirteen years ago when I bought the book entitled The Blues Highway: A Travel and Music Book by Richard Knight.

But then, as we were on the point of booking the trip, Hurricane Katrina battered New Orleans, the planned starting point for the trip. We resolved then that we would wait to do it when life in the city had returned to some semblance of normality.

In 2012, we did finally embark on a road trip, but in a very different part of the country – the National Parks of the South West, covering the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico.

Setting off from Las Vegas, our expedition took in Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, Lake Powell, Monument Valley, Arches National Park and the Grand Canyon, followed by a sizeable detour through New Mexico, visiting Santa Fe, Albuquerque and iconic locations on Route 66 such as Winslow, Arizona (“Standin’ on a Corner”) and Gallup, New Mexico before returning to Vegas.

Numerous trips to San Francisco, Tahoe, Vegas as well as the North East (of the U.S, not England!) followed, as the Southern states, other than Florida, failed to seduce us sufficiently into venturing in their direction. Maybe their racist past (and present), Christian fundamentalism and gun culture all have had something to do with it. Moreover, the scene from Easy Rider where the main protagonists get short shrift in a southern diner still haunts me, and the song by Folkestone band, the Transients, entitled They Don’t Like Hippies in Baton Rouge, only serves to exacerbate the anxiety.

But now, with mid-term elections looming and the divisions in America widening, we have chosen this moment to plunge ourselves into the belly of Trumpsylvania, though a Californian friend’s recent assertion that we were essentially visiting “blue cities in red states” is a comforting and far from innacurate one.

So what is the attraction of this particular itinerary that has stubbornly refused to disappear from our vacation radar?

The Blues Highway, essentially Highway 61, runs, for the most part alongside the mighty Mississippi, from New Orleans  to Chicago and traces the migration of many African Americans from the Deep South to the Northern cities following the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Equally, it charts (sic) the development of the major music genres for which we are so much indebted to the United States for, principally the blues and gospel (Mississippi delta, Memphis, St Louis and Chicago), but also jazz (New Orleans), cajun and zydeco (Lafayette), country (Nashville) and soul (Memphis again, and not forgetting Elvis!).

After an initial overnight stay in Newark, New Jersey (flights from the UK being so much cheaper), we fly to the “Big Easy” for four nights before hitting the road with single overnight stays in Lafayette, Vicksburg and Clarksdale. A three night residence in Memphis follows before we head east to Nashville for four nights, arriving on the eve of my birthday.

From “Music City” we cross country back to the main road for three nights in St Louis, followed by a night in Peoria before arriving in the “Windy City” for another four nights, when we are hoping to be joined for a couple of nights by friends from San Francisco. Two nights in New York City conclude the trip before we catch our return flight from Newark.

The trip has the added bonus of introducing us to seven new states – Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri and Illinois with brief detours through Kentucky and Arkansas. The prospect of experiencing new cultures, historic tours and spectacular scenery is, of course, exciting, but it is the music that is the driving force of the trip. Clubs, bars, museums and street musicians will, therefore, be the major focus of the next three weeks.

And we must not forget the other star of the show – the road itself.

Little thrills the blood more than the thought of exploring this amazing country by car with the radio blaring out the music style that reflects the landscape you are travelling through at the time. I am sure it will reveal some entertaining adventures as this blog grows over the coming weeks.

So let’s get on with the show!

See y’all later!

 

 

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Our last day on the road and one on which we hoped to catch more vintage Route 66 sights before we said a fond farewell to The Mother Road. We had nearly 300 miles in front of us before we reached Las Vegas, where we had tickets for the Dark Star Orchestra concert in the House of Blues in Mandalay Bay at 8pm. With that in mind, we left the Little America Hotel in Flagstaff at 8.35am, our earliest start of the trip.

Before we joined the I-40 west we needed to fill up the car. As we had contracted to return it with an empty tank, we did not want to put in any more than was necessary. We estimated $30 should do the trick.

Our first planned stop was at Bellemont, location for a classic scene from Easy Rider. Early in the movie Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda pull up in front of the Pine Breeze Motel, hopeful of a room for the night. However, the owner, peering from within, spots their motorcycles and promptly switches the neon sign from VACANCY to NO VACANCY. Although the motel is now closed, the sign is still displayed at the nearby Route 66 Roadhouse Bar & Grill – which does welcome bikers. It is that we went in search of.

We left the interstate at junction 185 as directed and followed the signs to Bellemont – or so we thought. Our first attempt ended in a pothole ridden track that ran out in a forest clearing. Undaunted, we crossed back over the I-40 and took the frontage road, but after two miles we reached a similar dead end. With no access to the freeway we were forced to turn back.

We could not afford too many such fruitless detours on a day when we had so many miles to cover. At least this diversion had given us the opportunity, on an empty stomach, to witness a group of cows defying the flies to feast on a rotten deer carcase.

The other Route 66 destination that we were anxious to visit was Williams, just thirty miles from our starting point. Taking exit 165 we entered the town, whose welcome sign stated that “You are wanted in Williams”. And so we were.

After parking the car we started to walk down the main street in search of a suitable breakfast venue. We were tempted first by Goldie’s Route 66 Diner, but the sight of ten bikers roaring into the forecourt in front of us suggested we might have to wait a while!  The nearby Red Garter Bed & Bakery retained outward hints of its former notoriety as a bordello.

This town has the distressing or proud, depending on your point of view, distinction of being the last one to be bypassed by the interstate on 13th October 1984 when Bobby Troup, the writer of (Get Your Kicks on) Route 66 attended the closing ceremony. That might have proved the death knell of the community, but its railroad history and proximity to the Grand Canyon enabled it not only to survive but thrive as an important major tourist location.

We were immediately attracted to Williams with its frontier feel and vibrant Route 66 connections. Nearly every establishment, whether a gift store, diner, trading post or motel, appeared to be selling a large selection of road memorabilia.

We were spoilt for choice of dining options here too. Cruisers Café 66 Bar & Grill, which would have been my original preference, was, sadly, closed, though we were still able to roam its delightful patio with its vintage gas pumps (above), murals and and quirky Halloween paraphernalia (below).

Of all the towns we had visited on our trek through New Mexico and Arizona on America’s Main Street, nowhere flaunted its Route 66 heritage more than Williams, as the restaurant sign below illustrates. And we loved it!

Eventually we decided on breakfast at the Pine Country restaurant, a classic diner with friendly staff,  family atmosphere and, of course, its own mini gift shop. Two fried eggs sunny side up, hash browns, sausage patty, lashings of ketchup, sourdough bread and, of course, unlimited coffee, was just the right fuel for the long road ahead.

Aside from its Route 66 frisson, it is Williams’ railroad history that brings the visitors flocking in today. The Santa Fe Railroad first connected it with the Grand Canyon in 1901 but it went out of business sixty seven years later.

Then in 1989 it reopened as the embarcation point for the Grand Canyon Railway which now carries tourists the 65 miles daily to the South Rim through the high plains and pine forests. An essential excursion on our next trip.

Another of the town’s nostalgic diners is Twisters, full of road memorabilia and complete with original fifties soda fountain and bar stools. The reasons for a return trip in the not too distant future mount up – only time today for a handful of photographs of the exterior.

We would have loved to have spent longer in Williams (it was now nearly 11 o’clock), not least to explore the Arizona State Railroad Museum (and sample each of the diners!), but were mindful that we needed to reach Vegas as early as possible in order to avoid a lengthy queue at hotel check-in. And there was that gig to get to.

This meant we had to remain on the interstate rather than join the Route 66 loop which included Seligman and its legendary Sno-Cap Drive-In and the equally famous Hackberry General Store. 

I am so looking forward to that next trip!

Route 66 may not have been the primary focus of the trip when we first planned it. But we had virtually lived on it since Albuquerque and fallen under its spell – even when we couldn’t find it! There is no other road in the U.S., or anywhere in the world for that matter, that carries as much resonance – not bad for a road that no longer officially exists! Tim Steel put it best in his eponymous book:

There are few things in life as alluring as a road trip, and few roads beckon as seductively as Route 66.

We may now have been concentrating on eating up the miles rather than looking for obscure Route 66 spots, but it did not dull our powers of observation. Hitchhikers dotted this stretch of the interstate, a reminder of a gentler time and one we had not seen at all on the trip heretofore. Perhaps they were Deadheads trying to get to the Dark Star Orchestra gig in Vegas! No tie-dye in evidence, so probably not. We passed a truck carrying an  unusual “oversize load” – an aircraft wing! Blown tires strewed the road and hard shoulder.

At exit 48 at Kingman (along with Barstow and San Bernadino, celebrated in the final line of Bobby Troup’s classic song), we finally left the I-40 (and Route 66) to join the I-68 West and, shortly afterwards, the I-93 North to Las Vegas. It was a quarter to one, eighty four degrees (twenty three degrees warmer than it had been when we left Flagstaff but still eight degrees cooler than when we arrived in Vegas). We had exactly one hundred miles to go. We took a comfort break in a gas station and discussed whether we needed to “top” the fuel up, concluding that we might just make it – which we did, endorsing the decision we had made at the beginning of the day). Billboards for the casinos in Vegas were already a regular roadside sight.

Much of the I-93 was desert with occasional shacks the only habitation. Plots of five, ten and twenty acres were on sale, though the landscape was bare and unprepossessing. Within the hour we had passed the Hoover Dam and crossed into Nevada. Having made such good time since Williams, we stopped in Henderson for an iced coffee before the final cruise into Vegas.

Nothing in the past seventeen days had prepared us for the volume of traffic that greeted us on the run in to Vegas! We approached via Flamingo Road’s three lanes that seemed to go on forever, and made the right turn onto the Strip towards our hotel.

After a tearful goodbye to “Ruxy”, who had transported us, without a hitch, 2,325 miles across five states and innumerable extraplanetary vistas, we headed for check-in at Treasure Island. And yes, it was crammed! As the receptionist explained “half of Southern California is here this weekend” and most of them had just landed!

But within the hour we were in our room overlooking the Strip. And not only did we make the gig but we arrived in sufficient time to eat in the House of Blues first – where it had all started two and a half weeks ago.

The concert was great – well I thought so! We walked the length of the Strip in the balmy early hours, and had a nightcap in the Breeze Bar in the casino before retiring.

It was already my sixtieth birthday, and we now had a long weekend in Las Vegas to look forward to.

As to what we got up to over the next four days – well, you know the phrase, don’t you?

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When we put together the original itinerary for this trip we decided, in the light of the array of other stunning sights on offer, none of which we had visited before, we would omit the Grand Canyon. After all, we had been twice before, the South Rim in 1995 and the North Rim nine years later.

On the later visit, we had fl0wn in a helicopter down to the canyon floor for a short boat ride on the Colorado River. This had been followed by a hair-raising jeep trip onto the Havasupai reservation for lunch and, inevitably, a tour round the open air jewelry stalls.

But as this vacation drew nearer, we came to our senses and realised that we would be insane not to go, especially as we were staying two nights in Flagstaff, Arizona, a mere eighty miles from the South Rim. Downtown Flagstaff and nearby Sedona would have to wait another day.

And, of course, we were proved right. Much as we were mesmerised by Bryce Canyon and humbled by Monument Valley, this mother is truly the daddy of them all.

We set off on yet another clear blue morning and 66 degrees. Once through downtown we branched north-west onto the I-180 West. We had, at least for now, seen the last of the buttes, mesas and crazy sandstone rock creations as we received a ponderosa pine guard of honour through the middle of the Kaibab National Forest. The San Francisco Peaks lay behind.

At Valle we met the I-64 coming north from Williams and followed the I-180 due north. Reba McEntire sang Consider Me Gone on 92.9 FM Kaff Country Radio. The Flintstones Bedrock Campground with Fred’s Diner and a huge sign exclaiming “Yabbadabbadoo” looked inviting but we were anxious to get to our destination.

We approached Grand Canyon Airport, from where Janet had got a flight to Vegas on our first visit, on a stretch of highway adopted by “Elmina Freeman I Love You Mike Freeman”, one of the more bizarre romantic gestures I have seen. Shortly before Tusayan, at what appeared to be a relatively new complex of  hotels and other lodging, restaurants and trading posts, we re-joined the forest.

Using our America the Beautiful national parks pass once again we entered the park, but before taking that first momentous look, we called in at the Grand Canyon Village for breakfast. Parking at the Canyon Lodge information Plaza, we were astonished to see how the facilities had been upgraded since our previous visit to the South Rim seventeen years before.

On that brisk October morning, when we had first gaped in astonishment at that massive crack in the earth, we had been deposited at Mather Point for just a few minutes before being herded back on our tour bus for the trip to Vegas. My only other recollection, and one from which I still bear the mental scars, is of the birds, grosbeaks I believe, stealing our breakfast of warm mini-donuts. This time our granola bars (a sign of the changing times?) were stashed safely in our rucksacks on this occasion.

So we knew what to expect.

Wrong.

Nothing can prepare you, however often you might visit, for this most inspiring and uplifting of spectacles. The expectation alone in walking the couple of hundred yards from the plaza to your first sighting at Mather Point was thrilling enough.

But then – that view!

We talked to a couple from Florida who were halfway through a three month road trip to celebrate the husband’s retirement. They were also visiting many of the same sights as us, as well as driving through the midwest and the south (well, they had to in able to get home).

It had been exactly a week since our last serious hiking – in the Arches National Park. All our walking of late had been in largely urban settings. So we were a little out of practice, if not of breath. But the trails along the rim were paved, though for anyone foolhardy enough to do so, and there were plenty, there were many opportunities for hanging over the canyon on jagged precipices.

Initially, we walked east, the less populous route, but after about a mile and a half we turned back and returned to Mather Point. From there we headed west along the Rim Trail to Yavapai Point where the displays in the Yavapai Observation Station explained how the canyon may have been formed.

Now, the guidebooks suggest that the latter extract of the trail takes about ten minutes. That may be true – if you are running for a bus with no heed for the scenery. But every few steps brings another jaw-dropping vista or overlook at which you find yourself drifting off in a reverie, only to be woken by a Japanese voice asking you to take a photograph of him and his girlfriend.

Attempting to pick out teasing glimpses of the bottle green Colorado River as it weaved its way around the canyon floor was a fascinating exercise in itself.

As evidence of just how quickly time had passed it was now 2.30 in the afternoon, time to drive the 23 miles east along the Desert View Drive, stopping at Grandview, Moran and Navajo Points to gaze at the timeless, ever-changing landscape of the canyon.

At Desert View, the park’s eastern boundary, we witnessed a group of hikers taking the last few steps of an ascent from the canyon itself. Now that is what we will do on our next trip. If we can negotiate the Navajo Loop Trail in Bryce Canyon in a hundred degrees, this would be perfectly manageable. Perhaps not the gruelling, and occasionally life threatening, Bright Angel Trail, but certainly one that takes us down into the canyon – and hopefully back up again!

In the Ancestran Pueblo-style Desert View Watchtower – which has an excellent gift shop on the ground floor and three circular chambers above decorated with authentic Hopi murals on the floors above – we talked to the proprietor who had lived in West Yorkshire. His experience had taught him that the British were much more polite than his fellow countrymen, an opinion which, on balance, we were, in all humility, inclined to agree with.

Armed with a bundle of souvenirs from the Watchtower gift shop, we had a coffee in the nearby snack bar. With the sun already hinting it was ready to call it a day, we dragged ourselves, reluctantly, from the park.

Rather than double back on ourselves, we took the I-64 East to Cameron where we picked up the I-89 South just as we passed 2,000 miles for the trip. The revised route allowed us the opportunity to call in at the Navajo run, but virtually deserted, Little Colorado River Gorge. It may have been the time of day but we saw more abandoned, or perhaps closed, jewelry / pottery stalls on this stretch of road than anywhere else in the Navajo Nation.

At Elden Pueblo a giant stars and stripes flag with an imprecation inscribed below of “Romney Save the USA”, lay limp at the roadside, a premonition perhaps, despite the previous evening’s presidential debate, of the ultimate fate of his challenge for the highest office.

The welcome sign for Flagstaff pronounced it the “World’s First International Dark Sky City”, a worthy accolade and one, I think, its residents should be proud of. It made me like Flagstaff even more and resolve to pay it a longer visit very soon.

Given that our room, or should I say suite, was so comfortable and spacious, and that we had to pack and prepare for our last. and longest, day on the road tomorrow, we decided to have room service.

One of the reasons we had originally chosen Sedona over the Grand Canyon for this day had been the short drive from Flagstaff. In the end, we had clocked up almost 200 miles.

But it had been worth every inch.

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Fuelled (no pun intended) by coffee from the Armco gas station next door, we left the El Rancho Hotel in Gallup early, not only because the journey was 225 miles to Flagstaff where we were scheduled to stay for two nights, but because there were several notable attractions on Historic Route 66 that we were keen to explore.

Although we had become accustomed to the frequency of stores selling Indian merchandise on the road, the profusion of trading posts on the outskirts of the town, including Richardson’s, Pow Wow’s and Ortega’s, reminded us that Gallup, home to members of the Navajo, Zuni and Hopi tribes, was the “Indian Capital of the World”.

Our weakness for such establishments slowed our progress this morning, but we had the consolation of knowing that, on crossing into Arizona, we would be clawing back the hour that we had lost when we entered Utah for the first time a fortnight before. We plumped initially for the Navajo Travel Plaza, essentially an immense truck stop but one that we were lured to by the imposing Indian statue in the forecourt.

On leaving the plaza we made two unplanned detours in an endeavour to get back onto the I-40W. The now ubiquitous Burlington North and Santa Fe Railroad trains snaked eastward alongside desert scrub where sheep scrabbled for scarce food.

On re-entering the Navajo Nation once again, we stopped at the Chief Yellowhorse Trading Post near Lupton, a ramshackle collection of wooden buildings selling the usual Native American jewelry, rugs and other gifts.

The most interesting part of the complex were the sheer cliffs that overhung it, where the owners had had large statues built of the animal species that frequented the area. Further along was the Tomahawk Indian Store, housed in “the largest teepee in the southwest”.

I cannot recall for certain whether we actually purchased anything here as a) we bought a lot of Indian jewelry on the trip, and b) the structures looked very much the same once you were inside.

Tempted by its vigorous roadside publicity for the past few miles, we turned off the road next at Indian City near Houck. This comprised two distinct buildings – Chee’s Indian Store, once a Navajo rug stand, and the newer pueblo-style building called, strangely enough, Indian City.

Despite the clean, modern look of the latter I preferred Chee’s, not least as I was able to purchase the beautiful Navajo by Susanne and Jake Page from its  extensive bookshelves. I nearly contrived to leave it behind in the shop, however, as the woman at the counter, not having seen it before, wanted to read it first, gushing over the photographs and excitedly explaining to me that her mother still wore the same traditional clothes and jewelry as the women depicted in the book.

We continued to follow the frontage road which ran parallel to the I-40 for a number of miles before arriving at the Fort Courage Trading Post, another store attached to the rickety facade of a western fort. If any reader thinks the place looks familiar, it was the setting for the mid-late sixties TV sitcom, F Troop. Given that it was broadcast on the ITV network in the UK, I never saw it (my parents were BBC loyalists), but Janet was able to relate more to it.

An abandoned gas station and adjoining windmill-shaped pancake house added a note of sadness to the whimsy. The reason I am standing outside the hogan in the photograph above has more to do with the prevailing stench inside than any decision to get the best light for the shot.

Despite the welcome extra hour, we were not making as much progress as we might have liked. And with several stops still before us, we needed to recoup some time. Balanced against that, we were getting hungry. Our previously reliable supply of granola bars on the back seat of the car was dwindling and something more substantial was required.

Our next scheduled “stops” were the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest, neither of which provided refreshment facilities beyond the usual gift store fare. We parked and walked to several of the overlooks to survey the stunning colours of the former, but, reluctantly, did not give the Petrified Forest the time it deserved, driving through it without stopping. Had we done so, we would have had to alter the title of this post.

Holbrook, the halfway point on today’s route and natural lunch location, was reached via the gunbarrel straight I-180. As we proceeded through a downtown that was not afraid to flaunt its Route 66 connections, we searched for one of the more fabled dining stops on this section of the road – Joe & Aggie’s Cafe.

Aside from their blend of Mexican and American cuisine, the restaurant doubles up as a small museum displaying Route 66 memorabilia. It also has an enviable place in movie history as the inspiration for the depiction of America’s Main Street in the Pixar film, Cars.

Waiting for our sandwich orders, we had no choice but to listen to an elderly regular proclaiming his pride at receiving his new hearing aid. A pair of bikers at the next table argued about their next move as they shuffled maps around.

Service was friendly and efficient, although the sandwiches did not quite live up to our expectations. We were not permitted to leave the establishment without signing the visitors’ book.

With the temperature nearing ninety degrees, it was a very short drive to the next iconic sight on today’s list – the Wigwam Motel. Once there were similar lodgings all along The Mother Road but only two remain today, the other in Rialto, California.

With its marketing slogan of “Have You Slept in a Wigwam Lately?”, the motel continues to thrive as both a novel lodging option and an open air museum that parades vintage cars outside each “unit”.

Attractive though the 32 feet high “rooms” look from the outside, I doubt I would wish to spend more than a single night in one, and that only for the novelty value. But would I choose the El Rancho Hotel in Gallup over this? I suspect not. On woefully short acquaintance, Holbrook joined the growing list of towns that we would have welcomed the chance to explore further. But not on this trip.

For a brief moment I think Janet thought seriously of exchanging our house and car for the alternatives on display below.

The procession of bizarre attractions just kept on coming. Next stop was the Jackrabbit Trading Post in Joseph City. The billboard declaring “Here It Is” is celebrated as one of the most iconic signs on the entirety of Route 66. In the road’s heyday of the post war years, motorists approaching from all directions were forewarned by a succession of yellow and black signs with a crouching rabbit counting down the miles. There may be fewer now, but the sense of anticipation remains.

I doubt we were alone, however, in being disappointed at the failure of the reality, in the form of the average trading post, to live up to the hype. Nonetheless, Janet enjoyed her ride on the giant fibreglass statue in the parking lot – another of those “well, you just have to do it, don’t you?” moments (I didn’t by the way).

The last prominent town before Flagstaff on Route 66 is Winslow, Arizona, a name that resonates with any self-respecting hippie of the late sixties and seventies. Singer-songwriter Jackson Browne co-wrote with Glenn Frey the song, Take It Easy, which was the first track on the Eagles’ platinum debut album in 1972.

The second verse begins:

Standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona

Such a fine sight to see

It’s a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford,

Slowin’ down to take a look at me.

The good burghers of Winslow seized on the marketing opportunity afforded by the song and erected a monument on the northwest corner of Second Street and Kinsley Avenue. It is now a place of pilgrimage for rock fans from all over the world, bringing renewed revenue and profile to the town. Whilst we leant against the figure, a young man on business from Baltimore, swung by and offered to take our photograph.

The girl, by the way, in the flatbed Ford, can be seen in the window behind the statue, which does bear a striking resemblance to a young Jackson Browne.

An excellent gift store selling a large amount of “Standin’ on the Corner” merchandise sits directly opposite the statue. As we perused the t-shirts (yes, I bought two), mugs, fridge magnets, postcards, CDs and miscellaneous items, Eagles DVDs were being shown on the large TV screen overhead.

Incongruously, the store was “manned” by two ladies of mature years who could not have given a better impression of disliking their job if they had tried. Not only did they fail to acknowledge the music (perhaps they had become immune to it), but they also made no effort to engage us in conversation, either about our purchases or our reason for visiting. It is rare not to be asked “where are you folks from” at least.

Anxious to get to Flagstaff before dark we gave Meteor Crater a miss and pushed on. But not without attempting to visit one final location.Bobby Troup’s classic song, (Get Your Kicks) on Route 66, has the line “Flagstaff Arizona, Don’t forget Winona”. We didn’t, Bobby. Unfortunately, however, we couldn’t find it!

We took the advice of Roger Naylor, whose beautiful book, Arizona Kicks on Route 66, had been our primary guide, and took exit 211 on I-40, picking up the original Route 66 alignment, Townsend-Winona. The scenery – Ponderosa pine woods, farms and meadows – was lovely, but, somehow, we failed to locate the town. Or perhaps we did and we didn’t realise it.

This late afternoon detour meant we had deviated from our planned itinerary for the day. We were now approaching Flagstaff from the north on I-89 rather than from the east on I-40. After much map rustling and an increasingly fraught exchange of views as dusk descended on the edge of town, we succeeded in spotting the Little America Hotel on East Butler Avenue, sat alongside the entrance to I-40 West (and Route 66) in the direction of Los Angeles – very convenient for our getaway the morning after next.

After our dark, cramped accommodation in Gallup we instantly brightened at the gleaming, welcoming lobby. The hotel consisted of a number of interconnected buildings and we needed to drive through the parking lot for several hundred yards before reaching ours in a lovely, forested setting. Janet did not hesitate in taking advantage of the outdoor heated swimming pool whilst I acquainted myself with a room that resembled a suite.

I write this piece on the morning after Barack Obama has been re-elected President of the United States (and I have had barely an hour’s sleep). That seemed a distant prospect as I watched in disbelief his lacklustre performance in the first presidential debate with Mitt Romney on CNN.

My spirits were raised by the excellent dinner and highly attentive service in the elegant hotel restaurant that followed. It was a few short steps from there to the adjoining bar where we topped up our bottle of Pinot Grigio with a couple of Jack Daniel’s and gin and tonics respectively whilst engaging in a fascinating conversation about the road with a trucker from St. Louis, Missouri. He was en route to Los Angeles, a regular trip in which he covered between 600 and 800 miles a day, a figure we had difficulty in relating to (the shortest route using classified roads between Land’s End and John O’Groats is 874 miles).

Today had been one of the most eagerly awaited legs of the trip, and whilst we had not managed to visit every attraction we had planned, it had not disappointed. Trading posts, a roadside diner, a hotel comprised of wigwams, sitting on a giant jackrabbit, reliving a great pop lyric – we had done them all whilst progressing 225 miles west. The weather, as it almost always appeared to be on the trip, had been lovely. We were now genuine Route 66 groupees. But we had to wait another day for the chance to enjoy it further for tomorrow was “the big one”!

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Buoyed by two good night’s sleep in Moab we were refreshed for what would be one of the longest road journeys – around 290 miles – of the entire trip before we reached our next overnight stop of Durango, Colorado. Two conscious decisions led to this – firstly, to make a detour to visit the Four Corners Monument and secondly, to ignore our trusty route planner’s recommendation to travel as far south on US-191 to Bluff before heading east, and cut off earlier at Monticello to pick up the 491. We were to make yet another detour, of which more later.

Having filled up at the Maverik gas station (this chain was a regular source of cheap fuel throughout the trip), we set off in the company of the customary blue sky (the rain on our journey into Moab two days previously had been a momentary aberration) and soon found ourselves alone on the road.

After 53 miles we took US-491 at Monticello as the Eagles sang on the in-car CD player “put me on a highway, show me the sign”. Well, the next sign we saw was one welcoming us to “Colorful Colorado”.

We had left, at least for now, the dramatic sandstone formations that had dominated the landscape for much of the past week. The area was a blend of flat pastureland and forest, dotted with the occasional homestead and small ranch, outside which horses and cattle grazed.

The Eagles were soon usurped by Kiss Country Radio 97.9 FM (“Keeping Cortez, Farmington and Durango country)”, which was to be our companion for the remainder of the day.

Dove Creek was the first town of any substance in Colorado with its business park and small airport. Further evidence of the growing number of grazing livestock was an advertisement on the radio for feed grains.

We were amused by a sign that announced that the Colorado Welcome Center was another 34 miles, an indication of the vast scale of this nation that you had to drive 50 miles before you could be officially welcomed to the state!

The San Juan National Forest which was to follow us all the way to Durango began to assume greater prominence as we passed the settlements of Cahone, Pleasant View, Yellow Jacket, Lewis and Arriola.

At Cortez, the largest town on today’s journey but one beset by roadworks, we eschewed the signs for Durango and branched south towards the Four Corners Monument.

Shortly afterwards, a low mountains range denoted that we were entering the Ute Mountain Indian Reservation. Once notable hunters, the Utes had been split up and relocated to poorer land by the white settlers’ westward expansion.

However, mineral leases and tourism had enabled them to build an impressive casino, hotel and resort (pictured above) where we halted briefly for free if indigestible coffee, restrooms and a futile flutter on the penny slots.

We managed to miss the turning for the Four Corners initially, but recovered the route within three miles. Had we taken the right road we would have avoided almost getting crushed by an immense truck turning left into the road at which junction we were sitting. The driver, equipped with almost obligatory drooping moustache and cowboy hat (not unlike the Dennis Hopper character in Easy Rider), did not seem amused, but his cargo of blindfolded horses appeared less concerned.

Crossing the San Juan River we arrived at the Four Corners Monument, the only spot in the U.S. where four states (Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona) meet at a single point. Whilst that might sound glamorous, the reality is less so – it is a barren, hot (77 degrees) and dusty place, given over to the presence on all four sides of the ubiquitous Indian gift stalls (we were back in the Navajo Nation at this point).

That said, in addition to doing the tourist thing and having our photos taken spanning all four states (I was surprised we were not charged for the privilege), we picked up some lovely t-shirts.

So pleased with our purchases were we that we then contrived to leave them behind in our motel room in Durango the next morning. Happily, thanks to the kindness of the proprietor and a payment of £25 to UPS, I can now report we have just taken custody of them again at home.

We had to retrace our “steps” (around 30 miles) to traffic-ridden Cortez before continuing our journey to Durango on US-160 East. But lunch now beckoned. My vegetarian past cruelly cast aside, I had harboured a craving for a Wendy’s hamburger ever since our flight had touched down in Las Vegas eleven days before, and, as luck would have it, an outlet cuddled up to us just as we were pulling out of town.

I’m not sure this is what Jimmy Buffett had in mind when he sang Cheeseburger in Paradise but my double was scrumptious. Janet also enjoyed her crispy chicken sandwich. Our unfamiliarity with fast food burger joints was exposed, however, when we ordered two vanilla iced frosties, thinking they were coffees (a la frappuccinos), only to discover, not unpleasantly, that they were in fact milk shakes. And all for less than ten bucks.

With only 46 miles to Durango we decided to call in at Mesa Verde National Park en route. When we revamped our original itinerary to include the loop through New Mexico (Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Gallup), we had been required to drop Canyon de Chelly and Mesa Verde.

But it was not until now that we fully realised just how close it was to the road we were taking, and even though time would not allow us to explore it as fully as it deserved, it would be crazy not to spend a couple of hours there.

Mesa Verde (“green table” in Spanish), the only U.S. national park exclusively devoted to archaeological remains, was home to the Ancestral Puebloan people between 550 and 1300AD, at which stage they mysteriously abandoned the cliff dwellings that had been their home. Formerly nomadic, they had turned to hunting and lived in pithouses clustered into small villages usually built on mesa tops but sometimes in cliff recesses.

We can only speculate why they lived in these secluded alcoves. Perhaps it was for defence or it may have been because they provided better protection from the elements, or even for religious or psychological reasons.

Whatever the purpose, they are astonishing buildings, some of them remarkably well preserved.

Unfortunately, we hadn’t sufficient time to join one of the ranger-led tours into the best preserved cliff dwellings, but we did take the self-guided Mesa Top Loop Drive which afforded us some excellent views of both the internal layout of the pithouses and overlooks of some of the villages.

Leaving Mesa Verde we drove through the Mancos Valley with the San Juan Mountains overhead. Mancos proclaimed itself as “Where the West Still Lives”, a not unreasonable boast as the scenery was taking on a distinctly more cowboy country feel.  But this was clearly under some threat as a large picture of a cow was accompanied by the words “I’d rather be a cow than a condo”.

After checking in at the Econolodge motel in Durango we took the free trolley to the historic downtown for dinner at Tequila’s Family Restaurant, a beautiful tex-mex establishment with dazzling, colorful furnishings. My seafood enchiladas were the best I had ever tasted and the margaritas were delicious. And it was also inexpensive. The experience was topped off by our server, Hector, dashing back to our table before we left to thank us for his tip.

As the next day’s journey would be much shorter, we resolved to spend the next morning exploring downtown Durango before setting off for our next stop in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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After a heartier breakfast in a more spacious Bear Bites room (and patio!) than its sister motel in Hurricane, Utah, we made the short drive from the Travelodge in Page, Arizona to Wahweap Marina for our Lake Powell boat cruise.

We succeeded in getting on a two and a half hour cruise that enabled us to have a leisurely lunch before taking up our Antelope Canyon tour in the afternoon.

With 1,960 miles of shoreline, longer than the entire west coast of the continental U.S., man-made Lake Powell, with its clear, blue water, red rock canyon walls and sandy beaches, welcomes nearly three million visitors per year.

It was already warm and sunny, if a little breezy when we took our seats on the top deck of the boat.

We had taken a similar cruise on Lake Mead, which is linked with the more celebrated Hoover Dam, the previous year, but enjoyed this tour more. The geology was more varied, and the descent into Antelope Canyon was spectacular. The final part of the tour took us in the direction of Glen Canyon Dam, the power from which serves 1.5 million people across five states.

We had a sandwich and coffee at the Marina before returning, briefly, to our motel to freshen up.  We then joined an excitable crowd at the Antelope Canyon Tours office for our 1.30pm tour.

The assembled throng was almost entirely Italian, a coach party of elderly tourists and half a dozen young couples. The former were accommodated first, and when our young Navajo driver / guide, Rosie, asked the rest of us to board her open-sided jeep for the journey to the canyon, there was an unbecoming scramble for seats, even though there were sufficient spaces (sixteen, eight on each side) available.

What followed was a jaw juddering, hair raising charge across desert and sand dunes to reach the opening to the canyon. Fortunately, we had neither had too much or too little lunch for the journey to discomfort us unduly.

What, however, added to the excitement, or alarm for those of a more sensitive disposition, was the fact that the 20 minute journey coincided with the first rain we had seen since we arrived in America.

We were drenched within minutes, and for a moment I was reminded of the eleven people who had been swept to their death in the canyon by a flash flood fifteen years before.

However, by the time we were helped, dazed, from the vehicle, the heat had dried our clothing completely and the threat of further rain had receded.

Antelope Canyon is a slot canyon, which means that thousands of years of wind, water and sand have ripped a narrow crevice in the mesa (a raised, flat stretch of land). It is a quarter of a mile long and 130 feet deep. Access is restricted by the Navajo tribe and visitors must be accompanied by a licensed tour guide.

The array of colours and shafts of light from above make it a real challenge for amateur photographers to capture the glorious images that dazzle the naked eye. The combination of a new digital camera and a modest appreciation of the snapper’s art, did not augur well for us. However, Rosie not only set our camera for the best effect, and then reset it at the end, but also took several of the photos herself! There appeared no end to her talents.

Indeed, as the young Italian couples in our group neither seemed to possess much English, nor appeared altogether interested, she spent most of the time directing her commentary to Janet and I. And yes, she is responsible for the picture below.

Dinner was taken at Bonkers, the number one rated restaurant in Page according to TripAdvisor. In fact, we liked Page and could have stayed a week without having to eat at the same place twice. A far cry from our earlier experience in Utah!

But before anybody reading this thinks that I have treated that state unfairly, we had two more nights there later (in Moab) where we enjoyed excellent meals, washed down with fine wine and hand crafted, home brewed beer.

For now, we were looking forward to our trip to Monument Valley the next day, the most eagerly anticipated leg of our trip.   

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I have already written in this diary about our frustration at being unable to find a decent alcoholic drink, especially wine, in Utah.

Imagine our relief, therefore, when we left Panguitch in the “elevated” state for Page in Arizona, our base for Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam, safe in the knowledge that we would be able to enjoy a bottle with dinner that evening. Although, I suspect, for different reasons, our guidebook declared that the only reason for driving US 89S was to reach Arizona.

Curiously, the first song playing on  97.7 FM The Wolf this morning was the last broadcast as we pulled into the motel the previous evening – Picture to Burn by Taylor Swift. As the cliffs loomed high on either side of the road, reception was lost, though we succeeded in finding 95.9 FM Classic Rock in time for Led Zeppelin to pound out Whole Lotta Love. 

Cruise America and El Monte RVs sailed past in the opposite direction in equal numbers, and I wondered what it might be like to live on the road full time rather than stay in even the cheapest motels. But I think Janet and I enjoy our creature comforts too much to go to such lengths.

We passed a PT Cruiser wedged in a ditch with the local sheriff”s car on the scene. Fishing resorts and ranches peeked through forestry as we drove through Glendale and Orderville. A billboard in the former proclaimed the Buffalo Bistro where the “crazy sausage” was the house speciality.

After filling the car with gas we left the main road to fulfill another of our Lake Panguitch guide’s recommendations – visiting Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park. Motorised buggies were hurtling over the distant sand hills and, eyeing the largest peak in the distance, from which youngsters were sliding down on a variety of contraptions, we set off in pursuit to do the same.

However, after twenty minutes barefoot yomping, and little appreciable distance travelled, we abandoned our plan. The exertions in Bryce Canyon the day before had taken their toll.

We rejoined the highway and continued our journey to our intended lunch time stop in Kanab, Utah, the self-styled “Greatest Earth on Show”, a town with a strong Mormon tendency but which had a distinct western feel to it.

As the photograph below indicates, the lack of wine was beginning to have an alarming effect on my looks.

Kanab’s justifiable claim to fame is that it was once “Utah’s Little Hollywood”, providing the backdrop to many prominent movies. Plaques extolling such Hollywood greats as Ava Gardner, Howard Keel and Maureen O’Hara were positioned along the main street.

We were also pleasantly surprised to find a funky, western oriented cafe and upstairs art gallery open where we had an excellent andouille sausage with cajun (or was it creole?) sauce and Greek salad respectively. Although wine was on the menu we were saving ourselves for Arizona. Isn’t that a film? No, it’s Raising Arizona, Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter I think.

It may have been Sunday but we also found a couple of attractive cowboy / Western stores – Gifts of the West and Denny’s Wigwam Western Wear (Denny must have been a big shot in town because he also owned a restaurant and craft shop) – to browse, and spend money, in.

The most amazing building, however, in this surprising town was the Kane County tourist information office with its beautiful murals celebrating its history adorning the exterior.

In view of my dishevelled state, it was understandable that Janet should find herself a cowboy.

Shortly after leaving Kanab a billboard screamed at us: “TARNATIONS! Did you visit Denny’s Wigwam and get your Levi’s from $29.95? NO? Turn round now”. We felt we had already invested enough of our money in the Kane County economy, so ignored the entreaty.

We skirted the vast Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument area where the jagged rocks resembled the longest bar of Toblerone in the world. Buttes and mesas abounded as we crossed into Arizona, celebrating its centennial as a US state, and arrived at the Travelodge in Page (another decent sized room for the price) where we were to spend the next two nights.

After I had booked a tour of Antelope Canyon for the following afternoon, and Janet had tested the pool, we had an excellent dinner in the Dam Bar and Grille –  with wine of course.

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