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Posts Tagged ‘Monument Valley’


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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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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We knew that visiting the Arches National Park obliged us to return to Utah. But we were not concerned as we knew that Moab, our base for the next two nights, was more socially enlightened than the towns we had stayed in at the beginning of our trip. It even had its own brewery!

Humbling and inspiring though our excursion to Monument Valley had been, our stay in the area was not an unqualified success. Being able to check in at noon at the Hampton Inn in Kayenta did not prove as beneficial as we had first thought. Our room may have been spacious, comfortable and well furnished but it was next not only to the lifts but also the 24 hour (sic) laundry and ice vending machine. You should be able to glean from that what sort of night’s sleep we had, or rather didn’t have. It was unquestionably the most, and possibly only, noisy room in the entire hotel.

We had also been advised at check-in that we did not need to reserve a table for dinner as the restaurant would not be busy. As we were late back from Monument Valley, it was 9pm before we were ready to eat. As we approached the lectern the signs looked ominous – the foyer was full of glum, exasperated fellow residents sprawled on armchairs and sofas.

Sure enough, we were told we would have to wait an hour. With alternative dining options in the vicinity severely limited we had no choice but to sit it out. It was indeed around 10pm before we sat down to dinner, to be greeted with the news that half the menu was no longer available. Even the consolation of a “proper” drink was lost on us as the beverage menu was entirely non-alcoholic!

And then we couldn’t sleep.

It was a pity that our experience of the Hampton Inn was so negative as it was an attractive place with a fine Indian gift shop. At least my complaint about the room did induce an offer of 50% off the (pre-paid) cost of the room by the manager, though it would require us to contact Expedia ourselves to secure the discount (which reminds me).

Our journey north to Moab meant that we would be travelling initially on US-163, the road we had taken the previous afternoon through Monument Valley. This afforded us the opportunity to marvel once more at the landscape.

But not before visiting the Navajo Indian Center, a complex of hard standing stalls selling jewelery and sand art, just outside the entrance to the Tribal Park. Once again, the retailers were all very friendly and genuinely interested in the details of our trip.

It was difficult to prise ourselves away from the area as every few hundred yards of road opened up new perspectives and photo opportunities. As we passed the sporadic, sometimes derelict, gift stalls by the roadside, it was difficult not to wonder whether their business was suffering from the competition provided by the Navajo Indian Center.

Crossing into Utah we passed Halchita and Mexican Hat, where we swung right over the San Juan River. The landscape took on a generally flatter look and the familiar “big sky” that was such a feature of this trip returned.

We joined the US-191 near Bluff as the skies, for the first time in the eight days we had been in the country, began to threaten rain and the temperature gauge dropped below 60 degrees. Distant flashes of lightning followed.

We resisted the blandishments of Blanding, even though it claimed to be the “Base Camp to Adventure” and boasted both a dinosaur museum and a Fattboyz Grillin’ restaurant.

We had become accustomed to roadside signs warning us to beware of animals crossing, but the flashing lights proclaiming “Car Deer Hits: 197”, followed shortly afterwards by the sight of one freshly slain, brought home the danger more forcefully. Dead wildlife by the side of the road was as common a feature of this trip as burst truck tires.

As the rain finally arrived and the temperature fell below fifty (half of what it had been in Bryce Canyon a few days before), we had lunch in Subway at the Canyonland Store in Monticello, which announced itself as the “Home of the Hideout”.

With a little over fifty miles to go I considered a comment made by an English woman we had met in Zion. She had complained that the road from Monument Valley to Moab was “boring”. Well, this may not have been the most spectacular stretch of scenery on the trip, but boring it was not. The road itself may have been straight but there were still sporadic clusters of red rocks amid the desert, which became ever more prominent as we neared our resting place. And there was that “big sky” – how could one ever tire of that?

As we approached Moab and the sky cleared, one of the increasing number of signs extolling the comforts of its accommodation offer was one for the Moab Brewery, that oasis of sophistication in an otherwise dreary state. More surprisingly, it stated that kids were welcome, hopefully not a comment on the strength of the beer!

We were greeted warmly by the proprietor at the Sleep Inn, though how the conversation got round to his enthusiasm for the seventies British sitcom Keeping Up Appearances, I cannot remember.

Unpacking was peremptory as we prepared to stake out the Moab Brewery and a restaurant for dinner that evening. The only drawback to an otherwise excellent hotel was that it was a mile away from the centre of town and that, with a four lane highway and intermittent paths on either side, walking was an extreme sport. But when you consider that Moab’s modern renaissance has been borne out of its status as a haven for mountain bikers, rock climbers, jeep junkies, raft riders and hummer hammerers, I should not have been all that surprised.

We negotiated the short distance to the thriving Moab Brewery premises, sat at the bar and ordered a Lizard Wheat Ale and Scorpion Pale Ale respectively before returning to the hotel to prepare for dinner.

We ate later at the Blu Pig – Brews, Blues & BBQ restaurant where I had catfish and Janet enjoyed a mighty plateful of spare ribs, and we drank a bottle of – whisper it – wine, Beringer’s White Zinfandel to be exact. We then took our lives in our hands by venturing along, and then across, the highway in the dark for another glass in the Moab Brewery before retiring for the night.

How unlike our evening experiences in Hurricane and Panguitch! OK, Utah isn’t so bad after all!

And we slept too – after all, it was The Sleep Inn.

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Our visit to Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park had been the most eagerly anticipated part of our road trip, and a week after we had flown into Las Vegas, the day had arrived.

Although today’s drive from Page, Arizona was only 104 miles, we were understandably anxious to get an early start to maximise our time in the Navajo Nation. So the trip to Glen Canyon Dam in the cool morning air was a brief one. Janet’s smile in the photo above pre-dated her discovery, several miles down the road, that she had left her Team GB baseball cap in the hotel.

Our customary diet of country and classic rock on the car radio seemed inappropriate for today, and we replaced it with Sacred Spirit II, More Chants and Dances of the Native Americans, the CD we had bought expressly for this leg of the trip. It was to play on endless loop for the next couple of days, lending a haunting, rhythmic backdrop to our travels.

As we headed east we began to encounter a sight that would become very familiar over the next ten days – tables by the roadside containing native american jewelery and, on occasions, pottery and rugs made by local people. Some of it might have been tourist “tat” but there is no doubting that the business is a valuable, even essential, addition to the local economy. On some stretches of road, however, there were as many abandoned as thriving stalls, though most still flying ragged American and Indian flags. More upscale trading posts, notably at Shonto, provided a shinier, and more expensive, face.

Much of  US-98 through Kaibito and Shonto was scrub and desert with occasional homesteads and trailers dotting the landscape.

As we turned onto US-160 the amount of traffic increased, though as on this entire road trip, such statements are relative – it meant that we were joined by a handful of vehicles travelling in either direction. Congestion is almost an unknown concept in this land.

That said, a huge Lux Bux America bullied its way past several RVs ahead of us as we bypassed the Black Mesa mine and Navajo National Monument.

Our overnight stop, the Hampton Inn at Kayenta, was 24 miles south west of the tribal park and directly on the route. We reached it shortly after midday, and as it was three and a half hours before our booked tour, we called in to check whether our room might be ready. After a half hour wait, during which we availed ourselves of the complimentary tea and coffee, we placed our luggage in the room and set off for Monument Valley.

Careful to avoid the cattle and horses grazing by the roadside, we took US-163, one of dozens of ramrod straight roads on this trip, joining a steady procession of tourist buses and Cruise America RVs intent on witnessing the archetypal western landscape. Low rise homes of brick and wood mingled with churches, including the Living Word Assembly of God and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and health, recreation and animal care centres before the scenery took on the familiar look of desert, sagebrush and isolated, thrusting buttes.

The mood in the car of approaching awe and solemnity was briefly shattered as a sign proclaimed that the highway had been adopted by “the family of Jimmy Krank” (this reference will sadly be lost on my American readers).

We entered Tsi-Bii-Ndzisgali, the Navajo for Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park meaning “the valley within the rock” ,with an hour and a half to spare. Although we were hungry we were more desperate for our first live view of that most iconic of movie locations. We may have seen it a hundred times on screen but nothing can prepare you for encountering it laid out before your eyes for the first time.

And there it was! The official leaflet proclaims it the “8th wonder of the world”. Those that have seen both compare it with the Pyramids at Giza, and the majority declare that it surpasses its Egyptian counterpart. I am content to take their word for that. Surely Wordsworth was stood here rather than gazing at Westminster Bridge when he declared “earth could not pass by a sight so touching in its majesty”.

Curiosity sated, our attention turned to lunch. Built less than four years ago in a style and colour sympathetic to its age old neighbours, the View Hotel provides luxury accommodation and stunning views. We found a table by the picture window overlooking the East and West Mittens and Merrick Butte, John Wayne’s favourite view, and ordered Navajo Tacos, fry bread with ground beef, pinto beans, onion and lashings of lettuce and cheese. Janet had the good sense to ask for the small plate whilst I succumbed to gluttony and had the large version, to the amusement I recall of the server, a decision I almost came to regret on the helter-skelter jeep ride in the backcountry later in the afternoon.

We assembled in the foyer of the hotel to await our guide. As the appointed time approached it appeared that we might be the only people on the tour. However, we were joined by another British couple and a mother and son from New York.  Larson, from Navajo Spirit Tours, appeared shortly afterwards to advise us that our guide, Miesha, was running a few minutes late and engage us in some ice breaking conversation.

Once Miesha had arrived and introduced herself, she drove us to the traditional hogan village, a group of sun-baked mud covered homes, built in harmony with the universe and all living creatures on earth. The large one in the picture, a female hogan, is used as a permanent home, and represents love, peace and kindness, whereas the smaller, conical version, the male hogan, is the location for ceremonies and for war plans to be drawn up (though not for some time I hope). Aside from their spiritual significance, they perform another valuable function in that they retain heat for long hours in the winter and can be 25% cooler than the outside temperature in the summer.

Our next stop gave us close up views, or as close up as visitors are, rightly, allowed to be, of the classic triumvirate of the East and West Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte as well as satisfying any retail urge we might have retained with a dozen or more tables displaying Navajo rings, necklaces, earrings and bracelets.

With the notable exception of the aforementioned, the most famous viewing spot in the valley is John Ford’s Point, the place where the great movie director, whose catalogue includes Stagecoach, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers, would spend hours contemplating his life and work. More stalls and a caravan selling fry bread and cold drinks completed the scene. The lone cowboy in the photo above appears periodically to enable visitors to satisfy their fantasy still further.

The selling point for this particular tour had been the excursion into the restricted areas of the valley. The self-drive and basic tour options focused purely on the more familiar areas. We were heading into the back country! Shortly after leaving John Ford’s Point we turned off the well trodden road down a narrow path out into the area bounded by the Rain God, Thunderbird and Spearhead Mesas.

The journey was reminiscent of the previous day’s bone-breaking ride to Antelope Canyon as Miesha made the jeep lurch in and out of the dry, rutted terrain. But she delivered us into a quiet, magical expanse that seemed far removed, even from the vistas we had marveled at only a few minutes before.

Here we encountered wild horses, a small party on horseback on a day’s trail, spectacular rock formations and sporadic lush vegetation – and, above all, blissful peace.

We were afforded the opportunity to see close up some of the most celebrated, but less often seen, sights of the valley, including the Totem Pole and Suns Eye (both pictured below).

It is perhaps at this point that I should say a little more about the Navajo in general, and Miesha in particular.

Much of the appeal for me of this road trip had been the opportunity to witness both the landscape and culture of the native american, primarily Navajo, people first hand. But everything I had read in preparation cautioned the visitor on how to interact with them. I was a guest in their land, an impoverished one in many respects. My hosts held deep spiritual beliefs that were far from the mainstream of American life. Some individuals might be difficult, taciturn, even hostile.

It was essential, therefore, to interact with respect and humility – which I hoped I would have done without the friendly warning.

I can only say that I did not have a single conversation or transaction with a Navajo throughout the trip that was not friendly and respectful. Our guide in Antelope Canyon, Rosie, could not have been more helpful or informative. Every restaurant server, trading post or stall owner greeted us with a smile and showed an interest in where we came from and what we were doing in their country and were grateful that we were. Of course, they were aiming to part us from our money at the same time, but that never seemed the primary motivation.

Not only are their beliefs about nature and man’s duty towards it, highly attractive, and ones that western man had largely forgotten, but on an individual basis they were a joy to deal with, on this day and the coming days wherever we went.

Ah yes, Miesha.

When we first met her, and were about to board her jeep, she outlined the three hour tour we were about to embark upon. Ever smiling, quietly spoken, a little diffident perhaps with a girlish giggle at the end of most sentences, she was nonetheless authoritative and immediately gained my confidence.

Not only did she recount the history, myths and, of course, movie relevance, of each sight in the valley, but she regaled us too with stories about her life and that of her family, bringing out the basic principles of the Navajo way of life such as respect for nature, balance in all things, and one that struck me as so contrary to our British and American prejudices – reverence for the wisdom of old age (her grandmother was 99).

Everything she said reinforced her commitment to these principles. A modern 21 year old woman but one deeply rooted in the Navajo life. Hugely talented, she had traveled far with her flute playing and singing. Indeed, her rendition of two songs, one in Navajo and the other in English, whilst her small tour party lay on their backs looking up through Suns Eye, was the most affecting moment of the whole trip for me.

She even made a vain attempt to teach us some Navajo! I think Janet and I did get top marks as we did already know Diné (the people)!

A’he’hee Miesha!

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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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It’s four months now since I entered my sixtieth year on this blessed, blasted planet. In fact, 2012 is a rare year for major anniversaries – the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens, the five hundreth anniversary of the death of Amerigo Vespucci, the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic and last, and definitely least, there’s lil’ ol’ me.

So how do you “celebrate” such a feat of stamina? Big family party? Trip of a lifetime? Crawl into a corner and curl up into a ball? Well, my 40th was spent in Amsterdam and my 50th in Paris, whilst my wife’s corresponding birthdays were played out in Paris and Venice respectively. Bit of a clue there then (though Janet also wangled a not inexpensive party for the latter in the boardroom of the local football league club)!

But I think you get the picture – we’ll be spending it somewhere other than home.

Janet has been “encouraging” me for months to decide where I wanted to spend the occasion. Unfortunately, I am no nearer making that decision than I was on my 59th birthday, though I have narrowed it down to a handful of candidates (feels a bit like I’m deciding on where the next but one Olympics or football World Cup will be held).

One trip that has been on my wish list for much of the past decade is what is known as the “Blues Highway”, effectively tracing the migration of blacks from the deep south to the north following the Civil War, and, in the process, reliving American musical history.

The tour starts in New Orleans, with extended stops at Nashville, Memphis, St Louis and eventually Chicago. Visits to such iconic venues as Graceland, Sun Studios and the Grand Ol’ Opry, would be essential, and we would also want to sample cajun and zydeco music in their locales.

A tour through blues history would not be complete without a pilgrimage to Moorhead, Mississippi where the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog or Dawg, the spot where the “father of the blues”, W.C. Handy, heard “the first blues song” in around 1903, or the crossroads (there is much dispute as to its location) at which the “king of the delta blues singers”, Robert Johnson, apocryphally, sold his soul to the devil. And an evening at the Ground Zero Blues Club, owned by Morgan Freeman, in Clarksdale, Mississippi would not go amiss.

But in August 2005 Hurricane Katrina put a temporary end to that dream.

The other front runner at present is the national parks and canyons of the American south west, notably Monument Valley, Bryce and Zion Canyons, the Arches and Canyonlands. Even this trip would have some musical resonance for me in the form of the great Jackson Browne / Glenn Frey song Take It Easy, popularised by The Eagles:

Well, I’m standing on a corner

In Winslow, Arizona

And such a fine sight to see

It’s a girl, my lord in a flatbed

Ford, slowin’ down to take a look at me

Come on baby, don’t say maybe

I gotta know if your sweet love

Is gonna save me

We may lose and we may win though

We will never be here again

So open up, I’m climbin’ in

So take it easy

When I first started to ponder this, our adopted second home of San Francisco figured strongly in my plans. The timing would have enabled us to attend a Giants ball game or two on their last homestand of the regular season against the Pittsburgh Pirates. But since then, in an increasingly common fit of weakness, we have succumbed to its allure and – for us – late booked a two week trip to the city in April. And we have succeeded in purchasing tickets for two of the first games of the season – against the Pirates and the Philadelphia Phillies.

This has had the added advantage of granting me a stay of execution on the fateful decision on the birthday break, though I know that I cannot hide behind that excuse much longer, hence this post.

The downside is that it may now necessarily be shorter than we had originally envisaged – two rather than three or four weeks. But we shall see.

I should also mention another U.S. option – that of staying at a friend’s condominium in Tampa, Florida – because I know he will be reading this!  He has very kindly offered to accommodate us at any time, and we will certainly take him up on that offer, though perhaps not this year. So, Melvyn, you have been spared – but only for now!

And finally, I have begun to pine again for Italy, our favourite holiday destination before the United States colonised our travelling consciousness. So I would not rule out Rome, Tuscany or Sicily at this stage, though they remain dark horses.

Or perhaps I should just take my lead from Ellen de Generes’ grandmother “who started walking five miles a day when she was sixty.  She’s ninety seven now and we don’t know where the hell she is”.

So what would you vote for?

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