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So, 2,325 miles and 17 days later, was the road trip worthwhile?

Absolutely.

It could not have gone any better:

  • check-in was courteous and efficient at every hotel /motel, and most rooms were spacious, comfortable and well furnished;
  • the planned itinerary for each day delivered us to the right place at the right time;
  • the hire car was completely reliable and a pleasure to drive;
  • we encountered very little traffic;
  • the weather was fabulous;
  • all the attractions we had planned to visit lived up to or exceeded our expectations;
  • most meals were excellent, including those on the road itself;
  • most people we met were extremely friendly and interested in our journey; and
  • WiFi was reliable in all locations, with only occasional gaps in connection; and
  • we never fell out, other than briefly on one occasion over directions to the hotel.

There were some irritations of course – the noisy room in Kayenta and the abstemious culture of southern Utah – but these were minor.

We did not manage to get to every sight we would have liked, notably Dead Horse Point State Park and stretches of Route 66, but we did visit others that we had not planned. And besides, it means we have a ready made itinerary for the next trip!

The main disappointment – and one that had no overall impact on our enjoyment of the trip – were the two hour delays each way perpetrated by Virgin Atlantic.

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Some friends and colleagues had actually been worried on our behalf about the prospect of the trip. Wouldn’t it be dangerous, just the two of you, alone in remote areas of a foreign country, a proudly gun-owning nation with a history of gas station hold ups and crazed killers mowing down hordes of people in schools, shopping malls and cinemas?

We had never given this a single thought.

Nor was our safety ever compromised on the trip.

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Most aficionados of the road trip advise that the way to enjoy it most is to just jump in the car and drive, staying when and where the mood takes you. Above all, don’t plan.

I understand that, but we decided to plan everything – from accommodation to daily itineraries – and it worked beautifully. But in future we might live just a little more dangerously and leave some of the lodging stops to a whim.

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So would we do it again?

Absolutely. We’d do it tomorrow if we could.

There have been other trips in the U.S. we would like to do – Highway 61, the prairies, north west, cowboy country – to which we can now add several variants of the one we have just finished.

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Sinatra sang that “it’s nice to go travelling” but “it’s oh so nice to come home”. And who can forget Dorothy clicking her ruby slippers whilst reciting “there’s no place like home”? They both have a valid point.

And the road can be tiring. Nobody has ever claimed that they enjoyed living out of a suitcase. And caravans, RVs and even the most luxurious of Winnebagos are not the most comfortables place to sleep, eat and relax in.

So why would anyone want to spend any more of their time than is necessary on the move?

Freedom, or as Richard Grant put it in his wonderful book, Ghost Riders, in which he travelled around with diverse groups of nomadic Americans:

the only true freedom is the freedom to roam across the land , beholden to no one.

The open road, the big skies, the ever-changing landscape, the excitement of who and what is awaiting you around the next corner or in the next town, discovering new cultures and pursuits, stopping when and where you want to eat and sleep.

Aren’t these – rather than engaging inanely via social media, gawping at lowest common denominator TV or moping around a shopping mall collecting things you neither need nor can truly afford – what make life fulfilling?

Life is about movement – physical and spiritual. What better way to experience this than to “get hip to this timely tip”? Hit the road!

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Finally, my thanks to Allen Manning who not only encouraged us to take the trip and designed our original itinerary, but also patiently answered all my uninformed questions along the way. It was fun too to compare notes via daily e mail from our respective trips whilst we were both in the land of the free (his tour included Tennessee, Kentucky and Texas).

Allen, you have a lot to answer for!

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“Road Trip” – is there another phrase that better exemplifies the heart of the American experience? Apple pie perhaps? Have a nice day? Manifest destiny? No, none of those come close to capturing the same sense of freedom and adventure that is synonymous with the American Dream.

Well, dear reader, as you are a valued friend, I am inviting you to join my wife and I on our very own road trip of the American southwest over the next three weeks. Come with us as we criss-cross five states (Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico) and three time zones.

We’ll hear the siren song  of the slots in Vegas casinos, listen to the mournful wail of country music radio as we glide the endless highways, and gasp at massive, multi-coloured incisions in the earth’s surface.

We’ll meet peoples from the rich diversity of American culture, including Mormons and Native Americans.

We’ll take juddering jeep trips with Indian guides into the heart of their reservation where we will purchase Navajo and Zuni jewellery.

We’ll stand at the only point on the North American continent where four states intersect, and have our photo taken like the dutiful tourists (I prefer the word travellers) we are.

We’ll eat at authentic cantinas and  tacquerias and sleep in beds where once slumbered the the Hollywood stars of yesteryear.

We’ll even find ourselves standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, waiting, or at least I will, for a girl in a flat bed Ford to slow down and take a look at me.

The itinerary?

I write this in our hotel (Mandalay Bay) room where we spent last night after a tortuous 15 hours on a Virgin Atlantic plane and equally frustrating wait in line for the car hire. But a fine meal and live swing band in The House of Blues, followed by a solid night’s sleep, has us ready for the road this morning.

Today we drive to Hurricane, Utah for two nights, the base for our exploration of Zion National Park. We then move on to Panguitch, Utah, close to Bryce Canyon for a further two nights. Staying at Page, Arizona for another two nights will enable us to visit Lake Powell and Glen and Antelope Canyons.

The highlight will be our trip to Monument Valley in the heart of the Navajo Nation, iconic location of so many westerns directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne.  A stay in Kayenta, Arizona that night will predate two nights in Moab, Utah, our base for Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

On the premise that we will be “red rocked out” by then, and that our hiking boots might have earned a rest, we will wind down a little at this roughly mid point. The sightseeing will become more leisurely as we move on to Durango, Colorado and then into New Mexico for stays in Santa Fe (two nights), Albuquerque and Gallup before driving Route 66 to Flagstaff, Arizona.

A two night stop there in which we will “pop over” to Sedona and the long drive back to Vegas, sixteen days after we left it, for the final four nights, the second of which will be my sixtieth birthday.

The rigours of the road will dictate whether we might take short detours to Los Alamos, New Mexico and the Mesa Verde National Monument.

Sounds fun?

So jump in the back seat of the car, tip your hat over your face, but not before grabbing a couple of Buds (or rather Sierra Nevada or Anchor Steam beers), kick off your cowboy boots, sing along to Hank Williams and Toby Keith, and enjoy the ride. It’ll be a blast!

Time to head out on the highway.

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Which is more than can be said for Virgin Atlantic!

The first morning of what appears now to have become our annual spring break to San Francisco dawned bright and chill in an unbecoming but convenient hotel outside Heathrow Airport. Having already checked in online on the previous day, our procession through bag drop and security was as serene as Manchester United’s to their 20th Premiership title, permitting us time for breakfast before boarding Flight VS019 to San Francisco International Airport (SFO).

Now, my wife and I are loyal customers of the Virgin brand, having flown nearly 30 times with the company since 1999, mostly to San Francisco but also to Las Vegas and Orlando. We have also enjoyed internal flights with Virgin America. We have chosen Virgin even when the price of the flight has been greater than that for the comparable British Airways flight.

That loyalty runs deep. We take Virgin Media broadband at home and ride regularly on the north west coast rail line when visiting Janet’s parents. Moreover, I was one of Sir Richard Branson’s earliest customers when I travelled – on my father’s rail season ticket – from Kent every Saturday morning in the early seventies to his original record shop in Oxford Street, buying the latest Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan albums as they were released!

I am sorry, therefore, to report that we experienced very poor service on yesterday’s flight. It was due to take off at 10.35am, landing at SFO at 1.25pm local time. Unfortunately, due to an issue with the in-flight entertainment system, necessitating the delivery of parts from off-site, we did not actually take off until 1.45pm.

I understand and accept fully the captain’s decision to return to the stand when the matter was discovered, however inconvenient it might have been at the time. The safety of both passengers and crew must be paramount.

My first concern related to an announcement made by the supervisor of the cabin crew only after we had started proceeding to the runway that the cabin crew was one short due to somebody going sick at the “last minute”.

Now, I don’t know when that “last minute” was but we were, by this stage, two hours late. Surely, Virgin have staff on standby to replace sick colleagues in such circumstances? Had it been after the two hour delay, there might be a defence for not providing a substitute, but if it was a matter of somebody just not turning up for their shift, I think there was both time and a responsibility to provide a replacement. To leave 354 passengers, 250 of which were sat in the economy cabin, and, just as importantly, their crew colleagues, without that support, was extremely poor service.

This meant, again understandably, that the initial drinks and meal deliveries were combined, although that effectively halved the drinks available to economy passengers.

My main concern, however, was with the handling of the hot meal. My wife and I were sat in row 62 i.e. towards the rear of the aircraft. We realised that, by selecting those seats, there was a risk that the range of food available to us might be limited by the time it reached us.

We were handed, for the first time in many years, a printed menu card prior to the service. This gave us a rather surprising, and frankly ambitious, choice of 3 main courses, namely beef cobbler, chicken and bacon and roasted vegetable penne. We both decided that we wanted the pasta, though we would have accepted the chicken and bacon had there been none of the former left.

By the time the trolley reached us there was only the beef dish left. We explained that we did not eat red meat (indeed, a fast reducing number of people do nowadays, hence the oddity of having it on the menu in the first place). The in-flight attendant explained that they were waiting for the premium economy passengers to finish their meal (sic) to establish whether there were any of the other dishes available, and if that were the case, we would receive one.

Two rows in front of us a couple, presumably in a similar predicament to ours, complained vociferously for between 5 and 10 minutes about the situation. It was clear that the same attendant, despite his best endeavours, was being given a very hard time by this couple and was being affected by it.

After what must have been another 20 minutes, and with just about everyone else in the cabin having finished their meal, the in-flight attendant brought three ravioli dishes and proceeded to hand the first two to the complaining couple, despite the fact that they had been “served” after us. This left my wife and I with a single ravioli meal (there were no chicken and bacon dishes at all) between us.

This was a classic case of “he (and she) who shouts loudest” gets what they want, and the attendant, understandably in some ways, not least due to the fact that his team was short-handed and back-up limited, caved in under the pressure. I’ll confess that I remonstrated with him briefly on this point but it was to no avail as he was quite content to lie to me to wriggle out of the problem. Interestingly, however, we saw little of him in the second half of the flight. It was if he was hiding or being protected – which, of course, had the effect of heaping even more pressure on an already understaffed crew.

I did achieve one minor triumph on the flight though. I always seem to attract the first person on any flight who wants to put their seat back, landing violently in my lap within seconds of hitting the skies. True to form, the middle aged woman, travelling with her daughter (who brought her own pillows and a week’s supply of chocolate), slapped her mask on her head and slammed her seat into my lap before I’d had time to get settled. Although I prefer to sit upright I have no alternative in the circumstances but to put my own seat back, thereby inconveniencing the person behind me.

However, when meal arrives, I don’t think it unreasonable to want to eat it sat upright so I politely asked the woman if she would put her seat back up for the duration of the meal. She appeared a little flustered but acquiesced. Nine hours later and she was still sat upright! However, in the meantime, her daughter had resumed the assault on Janet instead!

The remainder of the flight proceeded without incident, and we made up a little time, touching down at SFO at 2. (1 hour 50 minutes late).

Given that we were not visiting Tahoe until the middle of the holiday, we felt there was no need to hire a car for the first week. Whilst this saved us the vigil of the shuttle ride to the car hire center, and the traditional debate over whether we should upgrade to a four wheel drive car, it meant waiting in line for a taxi to transport us to our apartment in Noe Valley, to the south of the City.

This arrived within 5 minutes and we were “home” by 4.30pm, a not unreasonable $43 poorer but glad to have arrived so “early” after it had looked earlier in the day that we might be arriving a good deal later.

After 2 blissful weeks of virtual unbroken sunshine last year, the weather forecast, at least for the first few days, is grim, a mixture of light and dark clouds and intermittent rain, before settling down at the weekend when we make our two trips to AT & T Park to cheer on the Giants.

Although Nob, Telegraph and Russian might be the most famous, there are 40 (some say 41) other hills in the area and we can had intended to negotiate a handful of them in our first couple of days but it would seem prudent to put that off until the weather improves at the weekend.

Before the rain became heavier, eventually causing the A’s game against the Kansas City Royals across the bay to be suspended, we managed to get out and buy some basic provisions at the local wholefoods store as well as trying out the local coffee shop, Luv-U-Java.

Having been awake for more than 24 hours it was an early night.

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After a relaxing night at the Holiday Inn near Heathrow Airport our Virgin Atlantic flight to San Francisco ascended into the cloud cluttered skies thirty eight minutes late.   Most of the lost time was retrieved on a  flight enlivened by the repeated failure of the entertainment system, the noisy carousing of a handful of English rugger types in the galley area  and the malfunctioning of the pier doors on landing! 

We received an uncommonly affable welcome from the Federal Inspector on entering the U.S. and baggage reclaim and car hire went equally smoothly.  After the fork lift truck, brought in to haul  us into our seats in the red Chevy Traverse, was driven away, we set off for the City on the evening commute in hazy sunshine and 59 degrees, arriving at our customary first night stop, the Holiday Inn at Fisherman’s Wharf,  in little more than half an hour.     

Wireless connection, cappuccinos and baths – in that order – were the priorities of the next hour and a half.  Tradititon then took hold with dinner at Calzone’s in Columbus Avenue in North Beach followed by a couple of gin and tonics in Vesuvio’s, the famous bar frequented by the Beats and other counter culture luminaries in the fifties and sixties.  Our comfortable king size bed at the hotel was very welcome after a twenty four day.

That’s about as much as I can manage after such a hectic day,  Posts will be more comprehensive in future, starting with a report of today’s upcoming trip to South Lake Tahoe – the next big storm is in the offing (will it ever stop snowing this season)?

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