Who are we

We are a family of 3 who took a break from our routine. Usually we live in Scotland but February to the end of July 2011 we were on the road in North America for 6 months. We are Mark (also known as Dad), Rachel (also known as Mum... and a whole bunch of other names... my usual at-home blog is here) and Heather (10/11 years of age during the trip).

Sunday, 29 May 2011

California part one – Hollywood calling

After Vegas we were pretty quickly into California – the desert end – on May 17th. It was hot, dry… you know how deserts can be. We stopped for a drink in Baker and were thrilled to see the world’s tallest thermometer (see photos). We didn’t manage the largest ball of string though (sorry cousin Isa) - that’s back in Minnesota… or Kansas… or Wisconsin… or Missouri… depending on your definition of largest, apparently.

Anyway, after this giant surprise we drove on down the hot roads in the general direction of Los Angeles. We stopped to look at the Calico ‘ghost town’ marked on our map but it seemed to be mainly shops… and they were shut (it’s mainly a rebuilt late 1800s silver mining town… quite interesting in places, totally bizarre in others, very much for the day-tripper). We took some photos and moved on to our stop for the night – a little town called Barstow.

We’d picked Barstow because our rental car needed its 10,000 km oil change and we thought this might be easier to negotiate in a small town. As it is we stayed pretty much next door to the garage and got the oil change done nice and easy in the morning. Our evening was spent eating in a bowling alley (online reviews said it was the best food in town... it wasn’t bad at all), bowling (well, why not? We haven’t bowled since Canada), laughing at some of the funny shop names (‘Nail House Rock’, one other in the slideshow) and watching ‘Dancing with the Stars’ back at the hotel (h’s favourite show - semi-final). We even managed to sleep despite the very noisy switching train tracks just behind the hotel too. Imagine that Pink Panther scene with the gauntlet and the blackboard… the hotel handed out earplugs on check-in… for real.

After the oil change we drove down some back roads into Los Angeles (it saved us several miles of crazy cross-town freeway I think). The scenery was mountains to one side, cacti everywhere, some very Mexican little towns… all pretty peaceful and easy. Then we joined the highway and arrived in LA on the San Fernando side. Photos of the first 24 hours in California are here:

California desert and Barstow

As for Los Angeles… we’d not been sure what we were going to do… we weren’t even sure we were going to call in but in the end nosiness and h’s love for movies persuaded us that it was worth it. We looked at all the options and decided that, although the downtown area is no doubt very interesting (impressive architecture, art galleries, fancy restaurants) this wasn’t really what we were after at all. We’ve been in a lot of cities since we’ve been travelling and what we wanted in LA (as a family… remembering h’s tastes) was the full movie experience thing. We didn’t want tasteful… we wanted to see the Hollywood sign, the Walk of Fame etc. After all practically everywhere has a fancy modern art gallery these days… but where else would you find Paul Newman’s handprints in the pavement/sidewalk?

So we’d booked two nights in the best deal we could get in Hollywood – a Comfort Inn just a short hop from Hollywood Boulevard and an easy trip to Universal Studios. Of course it meant we didn’t get a lot of sleep (apparently the first night there was a convention of skateboarders in… they were young and raucous… running around the corridors, yelling at each other… the joy). Still, who needs sleep - this is Hollywood!

We got there early afternoon and straightaway headed down to Hollywood Boulevard. H wanted to go to the Hollywood Museum just off the main drag so we went there first before it closed. Based in the old Max Factor building this museum prides itself on having the best selection of ‘real Hollywood memorabilia’ in town (or something like that) and certainly we saw lots of costumes and posters and all kinds of interesting bits and pieces (Roddy McDowell’s ‘powder room’, the cell from ‘Silence of the Lambs’, heaps of Marilyn stuff…). It being Max Factor central there was a fair bit about make-up and hair too (how Lucille Ball became a redhead etc.). The guide-book was a bit sniffy about this museum but h really enjoyed it – she is quite the movie nerd.

After this we had a snack in the Mel’s Drive-In next door and then went for a walk along the Walk of Fame to do some star-spotting. H was looking for her favourite actress (Lindsay Lohan – no insults please, we love the Linz) but she doesn’t have a star yet (we checked on the map). h did find one of her very favourite singers though (Eartha Kitt – don’t anybody say our daughter doesn’t have varied taste…) and we have photographic evidence of this one. We did also find some L Lohan photos in a movie poster store (movie pics – not mugshots…) and I got some bright green trainers in the campest menswear shop I’ve been in in a while. Fabulous, darling, we were loving Hollywood so far.

We wandered by the Chinese Theatre, the Kodak Theatre, more and more stars and hand and footprints on the pavement/sidewalk and then ate in the quite fancy Rolling Stone restaurant nearby (I guess they got tired of watching Hard Rock and Planet Hollywood making such easy money…). Then we went back to the hotel and had our first noisy night. Day one LA photos are here:

Hollywood area

Day two in LA we got up early (2 hours sleep – it was like having a newborn!) and even made it to breakfast. There we met a girl h’s age who was in town from North Carolina with her Dad for a Hollywood movie audition (really!). h was kind of amazed that girls like this really do exist (she’d already done some TV and an ad and was very polished and poised…). h was a bit jealous too in all honesty (‘she’s so lucky’). We suggested that some people might say the same of her, wished the girl in question all the best and headed outside for our ‘shuttle bus’ to Universal Studios.

Well, our shuttle bus to the office down the road where we got our tickets for the Studios anyway. Then the company (Starline) put us on a fab open-top double decker and drove us the mile or so to the Studios. It was a lovely day (bright but not too hot) and the views of the hills and houses were stunning as we sped along. We got to the park before it opened so witnessed the whole ‘people waiting at the entrance to steam in’ business which we’ve never really seen before. It was fun and good for h (her only theme park experience to date is 2 days at the Paris Disney Resort a couple of years ago). All in all we had a great day at Universal too – went on all the rides, went on the very entertaining (and bumpy!) studio tour, watched all the shows (special FX, animals etc.), took endless snaps and so on. It was like a regular holiday!

At 6pm the bus took us back to the hotel and we collapsed briefly (tired feet, red noses…) and though we might have liked to go and visit LA’s Chinatown or downtown or something the truth is we were just too tired (theme park days are hard work!) so we walked to a little Chinese restaurant just down the road in Hollywood. It was an unassuming little place and not very busy but the food was really, really good. We ate our fill and wandered back to the hotel. We did even get some sleep this time. Our LA Day 2 pics are here:

Universal Studios day

Even before knowing how noisy the hotel would be (“I’m sorry,” said the receptionist, “LA just has a drug problem…”) we had booked our third LA night over by the beach to get a look at that side of town too. This meant we packed up the car on Friday morning (20th May) and changed lodgings. On our way we called by the Hollywood sign (windy roads to get up there! Impatient local drivers!), then drove down Sunset Boulevard (kind of scruffy really, lots of ads, lots of bars), into Beverley Hills and then turned into Rodeo Drive. There we parked in the first public parking we saw (hilarious valet parking scenario – British people are just not used to this kind of thing!). Then we found a little café for lunch in the Rodeo Drive version of a plaza, I suppose (mainly plastic surgery places, beauty salons and so on). Whilst sitting there eating a croissant stuffed with spinach or some such I SWEAR Julie Andrews walked by with an older lady friend. JA was in movie-star camouflage (baseball cap and sunglasses) but I heard her speak and NO-ONE sounds like Julie, even now. H did see her too but Mark was too busy eating and so you’ll have to take my word for it. But really – it WAS her. Very exciting.

We wandered a little down Rodeo Drive (“can I take a photo of the display in your store?” “Yes, if you stay outside”!!) and it was all very ‘Pretty Woman’. It’s possibly the cleanest place in California – the streets look like someone’s scrubbed them with toothbrushes. Then we got our car back out of the valet parking and drove along to Santa Monica (very pretty, lovely shoreline, h’s first glimpse of the Pacific) and then finally into Venice, where we had booked a place for the night by the Marina. The hotel was a bargain (older than some of its neighbours, less glossy) but it had a lovely outdoor pool and the weather was good so we all went for a swim and lie in the sun.

Still, no time to lose – only one night in Venice so we got dressed again and then walked down to the seafront to really say ‘hello’ to the ocean. H loved it – paddled and scampered about and at that end of Venice beach it was really just joggers and families and it was pretty quiet. After a while though we decided to go in search of the famous boardwalk and wow, what a change that was! I suppose it was Friday evening by then but the place was super-busy… skaters, posers, dog-walkers, cyclists, tourists (lots of us!) and lots and lots of people begging in one form or other (young and old, some quite together and some really, really far-out). There was a lot of marijuana promotion, lots of t-shirt shops, a man stapling his chest for some reason, lots of buskers (some very good) – just loads of stuff going on. It was like a festival or something (think Glastonbury late Sunday night) but h was tired and hungry (and gets tired of bugged-out people telling her she’s an angel) and so we found a place to eat (not many on the boardwalk really) and there we had a lovely meal with music playing in the background, some entertaining skating going on and even a beautiful sunset too. After that we got a cab back to the Marina (it was quite a walk for a small, tired girl and by this point some people were looking pretty Friday night crazy). We were all pretty worn out by LA (it’s so lively!) and ready to move on by then too. Our photos from Friday 20th are here:

Rodeo drive & Venice Beach

A couple of days later I asked h what were some of her favourite bits of the trip so far and she said, without hesitation, Hollywood so I guess it was definitely a good decision to go to LA. This is one girl with stars in her eyes.

Next time our visit to poet/blogger Chris of Enchanted Oak and the rest of our central California trip.

Monday, 23 May 2011

One night in Vegas…

We left Arizona on Monday 16th May and drove into Nevada. The very first thing you meet in that state is the Hoover Dam and Mark was interested in taking a look at it so we pulled in and parked up in the shiny new multi-storey car-park for visitors. It was all a bit cramped and busy (smallest parking spaces we’ve encountered in the U.S. so far, for example) and as h and I really weren’t keen to see the generators the two of us found a shady spot near the café (worst visitor centre café we’ve encountered in the U.S. so far too…) and did some reading. Mark on the other hand paid his dollars and visited the “truly impressive feat of engineering” (his words). Apparently the tours were split into groups of 150 people at a time (eek) and then sent in the 75-people-at-a-time elevators to the turbine room (double eek – 75 people in an elevator at once…). It sounded interesting but I’m mighty glad I didn’t go in. h and I took a look from the top of the dam down to the river… that was plenty!

After this we drove along the highway into Las Vegas (less than an hour away) for our one night there. Everyone’s seen Vegas on TV and in the movies (probably ‘CSI’ and ‘Showgirls’ mostly for me) and so in part you know what to expect. Still the first impressions are not quite what the screen allows. These are the Las Vegas features we noticed during our short stay:

1.There are a lot of plazas (rows of shops and restaurants) on the drive in to the centre of town. And when I say ‘a lot’ I really do mean ‘a lot’. It’s a city that has grown a good deal in recent years and there is masses of new-build on the outskirts.

2. There is lots of dust – it is in the desert after all.

3. There are a lot of advertising hoardings (there are a lot everywhere in the U.S. but they sprout particularly busily here). They advertise casinos, dancing girls, dancing boys, lawyers, restaurants… all the things you need in Vegas. There are posters for shows you might want to see (Seinfeld was calling in later in the month for a couple of nights, for example) and then there are posters for everything else (unknown magicians, random Vegas dancing shows, stuff you might well need to be drunk to enjoy… put it this way, quite a lot of the shows give away free tickets…).

4. A lot of drinking is going on. Even on Monday the parties were well and truly underway all over the strip. We saw a stag do/bachelor party and the groom-to-be looked about 12. Guess we’re getting old.

5. There are a lot of cheap hotels – even the Casino hotels are fairly cheap (well, on a Monday in May) but of course there are always the hidden costs to consider (the “resort fee”, for example). After a little research we decided against a Casino and stayed in a place a block behind the main Vegas strip. It was lovely (a whole suite of rooms), just a walk from all the glitz and a real bargain. And it was blissfully quiet.

6. There are a lot of tourists (‘tourist capital of the world’ one local called the city) and whilst I’m sure London, Paris and New York (and a few others) might have something to say about that it certainly was pretty full of visitors. There were loads of English people about (quiet, tidy couples in particular – not sure why).

7. There are a lot of shops – particularly clothing shops… the fancier end mostly. With that and the whole shows-thing Vegas is a bit of a tacky New York in that respect.

8. The sky is very noisy – with constant helicopters up above (people flying off the see Grand Canyon and so on, we imagine). Lots of planes about too.

9. As well as all the busy parts of Vegas there are great empty lots (windswept desolate areas) right in the centre of the city. We’ve stuck a photo or two of those in with the slideshow – just for balance. It is an odd looking place.

10. It is quite fun to witness the interesting competition between the big casinos as to who has the cheesiest, most ridiculous décor out front (“Look at my pyramid!”, “No, see my Eiffel Tower!”, “No, I have a lion the size of a house!”)… and yet somehow it is kind of beautiful in its way (well, for a short time anyway). The fountain show at the Bellagio, for example, which we caught on the Monday night was really enchanting. We wandered up the strip to see all the big casino fronts but we only actually went in to the Mirage (for h and M to visit the lions and tigers and dolphins on the Tuesday morning). It was fun to see inside but my goodness it was like a town in there… bars, cafés, shops, even a bit of what looked like artificial grass called a ‘pet relief area’ at the back of one casino. Plus what is on sale is all so expensive (definitely most expensive sandwiches so far in the Mirage coffee place). Free parking though of course. Some you win, some you lose… and that’s Vegas.

Here are our Nevada photos (including Hoover Dam, Vegas and the Siegfried and Roy ‘Secret Garden’ at the Mirage):


And here is a video of the Bellagio fountain show:

So, a short and sweet post this time. We’re currently about halfway up California… there’s going to be heaps to write about all this bit of the trip but we've no idea when we'll get round to writing it up (never mind sorting through the photos!).

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Corners and Valleys and Canyons, oh my!

Brace yourselves - it's a long one!

So, Thursday 12th May we left New Mexico and drove into Arizona (all this within the Navajo Nation area… which does have quite a different feel to other parts of the country). In this north-eastern corner of Arizona h posted a birthday card to a teenage cousin at the post office in Teec Nos Pos and then about fifteen minutes later we were back in New Mexico again as we entered the Four Corners Monument site (Four Corners marks the point where New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado meet… and the entrance gate is just in NM). We paid our few dollars and then entertained ourselves immensely running around and posing for photos (“here’s h in Utah and Colorado”, “here’s Mark playing twister in 4 states at once” etc.). We were not alone – other people were playing similar games of course. We ate a picnic in the blazing sun, perused the many stalls selling Native American jewellery (we have lots of people to buy gifts for!) and generally enjoyed the Four Corners experience. There’s not much to see in some ways but somehow it’s still a lot of fun and impressive in its emptiness. Then we drove for about ten minutes through Colorado (it’s just the way the road bends – no offence Colorado but we haven’t time for everywhere) and finally, that day, we crossed the border (again) into Utah.

Once in Utah proper we drove through some beautiful rocky scenery before arriving at our stop for the night – Bluff. Our first meeting with Bluff was the very impressive Twin Rocks (and great Twin Rocks Café). We had a drink, took photos and then drove on into the little town to find our motel (Kokopelli – a fairly minimal establishment but clean, quiet and friendly… and look up Kokopelli… good stories…). For such a small place there’s plenty to do in Bluff (even if you’re not going off hiking or river-rafting, as many other visitors were). I visited a great rough’n’ready artist’s place (here) while the others took it easy and rested up. Then later on we all wandered the dusty streets a little, took in Bluff Fort which is a mostly recreated cabin village to commemorate the Mormon settlers who founded the town in 1880 after a pretty amazing (and long!) journey that literally took them through the rocks round about. The Fort is free to enter and the whole place is developed and staffed by volunteers from what we could see. There is always an awkwardness in this day and age surrounding places that celebrate the European expansion in North America (well, there is for people who care about such things) but this little place seemed to be doing its best to just remember some history and not blow one band of people’s trumpet too loudly over the sound of another’s (but of course we could be wrong). Bluff’s a bonny place too (close to the San Juan river) and we very much enjoyed the rocky views (those red rocks reminding us of the cliffs of Auchmithie in Angus, Scotland in some ways). As Bluff is quite a stopping point for tourists there were a few places to eat and we ended up in a very entertaining steakhouse/BBQ kind of a place (lots of cowboy décor, free bandana with every meal, huge apple pie…). What with all the fresh air we slept well and weren’t even too disturbed next morning by all the archaeologists, hikers and river-rafters as they set off for their various country adventures. A little later than some of these travellers we drove parallel to the San Juan river for a while – stopping along the way to look at petroglyphs and the river and the amazing Goosenecks scenic view (all in Utah still). Our Four Corners and Utah photos are here:

4 Corners and Bluff, Utah

At about lunchtime that day we got to the Monument Valley area (pretty much at the Utah/Arizona border). First we visited the Goulding’s Lodge and its small museum – founder Harry Goulding was one of the key figures who got movie directors like John Ford to come and use Monument Valley area as a location for westerns. Though it started small in the 1920s the Goulding development is now pretty big (tours, hotel, shops, restaurant) but we just visited the little (free) museum with all its John Wayne memorabilia (we know a big JW fan!). The museum also features Navajo history videos (one had h in tears) and a general celebration of the area and its people. After this we drove down to the shiny new Monument Valley visitor centre (all run by the Navajo Nation) and once again we ate a picnic in what felt to us like strong sunshine (though the locals said it was “just quite a nice day”). We considered our options for visiting the Valley itself (driving it, taking a jeep tour…) but in the end we decided to take this opportunity to try an older form of transport. Want to know what we did in the beautiful, beautiful place that is Monument Valley (even with the large numbers of tourists that flock to it it’s still very impressive)? Evidence in the slideshow below (towards the end):

Monument Valley

After Monument Valley we were hot and tired and set off down the road south-west. We did stop at Kayenta – just to see how a Burger King can make itself socially useful (the one in Kayenta has a display about Navajo Codetalkers from the Second World War). It plays unusual Burger King background music too... but then we were still deep in the Navajo Nation area and why should everywhere be the same even in this corporate world? We had an ice-cream, read the boards and then drove on to our stop for the night in Tuba City.

We’d booked a night in the Moenkopi hotel in Tuba City, Arizona (good reviews online – how much have we been seeking tips and advice from fellow travellers!) and though it was a little more expensive than some of our bargain nights it really was enjoyable. The hotel is run by the local Hopi Nation (a Nation within the Navajo Nation, geographically speaking) and features all kinds of lovely little touches in its design (down to the local products available in the bathrooms). It is basically a good, modern hotel (great pool, helpful staff, slightly surreal breakfast in the connected and brand new Denny’s next door) but there is a little more to it as well – a real sense of pride that it is locally run. It was a good stop.

One surprise at this point though… we were expecting to change time zones as we left Arizona (and Mountain Time) but when we got to the Tuba City hotel they had two clocks up at reception (one with the label ‘Arizona time’ …eh?). Apparently part of Arizona doesn’t put its clocks forward at the summertime change (though the Navajo Nation does…) and so part of the state ends up being more like Pacific than Mountain time. Confused? We were (and h is fairly obsessed with the whole time-change thing). It did mean we were up early enough to beat the breakfast queue though… we were still on Mountain time! At least I think we were…

After said breakfast it was time to get on with seeing one of the USA’s tourist jewels… so we drove further south and west, left the Navajo Nation and entered the Grand Canyon National Park (see excellent photo of ranger who took our $25 on entry). We drove in from the east so saw the Little Colorado views first and then, once in the Park, went along Desert View Drive, stopping at many of the viewpoints along the way. Our first view of the Grand one was from Desert View with its really striking Watchtower (one of my favourite parts of the Canyon Park – well designed, with great Native American artwork, very attractive). The snack bar nearby was not quite so attractive but we had a good natter with some Wiltshire travellers there (that’s Wiltshire, England) and then got back in the car to seek more views. We stopped at the Tusayan Ruin and Museum (quite a lot of information on the people who lived by the Canyon a couple of thousand years ago) and then we stopped at Grandview Point with all its information on past copper mining in the Canyon and the first hotels there built for early 20th Century tourists. We also stopped at the main visitor centre (very chilled – not nearly as much flogging of helicopter tours and so on as we’d expected… in fact none at all really… quite a relief) and there we looked out at the Mather Point (complete with its marker to all the Native American peoples who “call the Grand Canyon home”… this latter largely ignored by visitors as they rush to the viewpoints of course... hard to compete with the big view).

By this time it was something like check-in time so we moved on to the area of the “Grand Canyon Village” where the lodges/hotels are all located. We’d booked fairly last minute but had still managed to get a reasonably priced room in the cheapest lodge (no views and furthest from the Canyon… but still only a five minute walk from the rim so absolutely fine for us). In fact the Maswik Lodge was quiet and spacious and had a really easy-going and not over-priced cafeteria so it suited us really well. It was fascinating talking to all the staff too (people from all over the States and all over the world). Most of the staff seemed to live in employee accommodation close to the lodges and I’m sure that especially for the younger ones this is no end of fun (very reminiscent of Euro-Disney in that regard).

After a quick cafeteria dinner we walked down to the rim to find the obligatory sunset-viewing-spot. The free shuttle buses were busy ferrying people to the favourite places for maximum viewing but it was a pretty cloudy evening and we were really not in the mood for crowded buses and jostling crowds (there were people from every corner of the world). Instead we found a nice friendly spot at the Lookout Studio and sat and watched the rocks and the sky… and the people watching the rocks and the sky. We didn’t see the kind of sunsets they make postcards of but it was pretty atmospheric and enjoyable all the same. We were the last ones to leave the Lookout Spot… and it was nice to be alone with the view for a little while.

The next day (Sunday 15th) dawned sunny and windy and we checked out and then set off to walk along the rim a little (heading west). Again we decided against the crowded buses and just wandered as far as seemed suitable in the heat. From up on the rim path you get a good view of all the people heading off down into the Canyon on paths like the popular Bright Angel Trail but none of the routes down are suitable for children from what we could see and even if they had been they are all big hikes and not to be taken lightly. Even the mule trips down take ages and we’d had our animal encounter in Monument Valley the day before (without constant slopes!) and didn’t feel the need for any more. Really we were more than happy to look down at the Canyon… and across it. It’s strange how it looks… almost unreal… completely like a painting (and at times a bit of a cheesey one, if you know what I mean). We did really enjoy the visit but I don’t think I’d call it one of the highlights of the trip or anything. It’s almost too much in some ways… beyond appreciation, perhaps. Or maybe we’re just weird.

One thing we didn’t know about Grand Canyon was that uranium had been mined at there (as well as copper) and not that long ago. Our walk passed close to the site of this activity and there was an information board about how they are trying to tidy up and get rid of any potential hazards on this section of the rim. Interesting, very interesting… and not much about it in the guidebooks.

One thing we very much enjoyed was watching the Navajo dancers we saw up by the South Rim Hopi House on Sunday lunchtime after our walk (there are lots of organised, and free, activities all around the park all the time). Despite the hefty gales the family of dancers did a great job (in some fine outfits) and it was a really special experience to watch them. H wanted to go and join in it looked such fun (and, apart from the impossible hoop dance, fairly doable even for newcomers). We had hoped to catch a Park Ranger-led activity too (there are lots of nature/geology/history talks and walks) but that didn’t quite work out (plus it was really hot in the sun…) so instead we packed up and set off south. I suppose some people would find it hard to tear themselves away from those great rim views of the Canyon but somehow we didn’t feel that way. It was a good stop but it didn’t outshine the rest of the country for us or anything. Far from it.

On the way down the road we passed the place where they show the National Geographic IMAX movie of the Canyon and as we hadn’t taken the helicopter-over-the-beast option we decided to give this (much cheaper) flyover a try. It was OK but not particularly amazing (plus it was full of hot and slightly grumpy senior coach tours) and it mainly concentrated on people who have explored the Canyon (lots of shots of wild Colorado river activity – not nearly enough flying over the Canyon for my taste). We did however see an elk really close up when we pulled into the IMAX car park (very exciting). After that our GC trip really was over though and photos of this section of the tour are below (Mark took loads of the Canyon of course… as everyone does… we’ve tried to pick our favourites):

Tuba City and Grand Canyon

After Grand Canyon we drove south and then west and then crossed from Interstate 40 to the old Route 66 just east of our stop for the night – Seligman, Arizona. This little stretch of the 66 was everything it should be – we moved at a good speed, there was a huge freight train running along beside us and there was good blues music playing on the radio (finally – something other than Phil Collins and Bon Jovi!). Seligman was a treat too – small and full of old car art and smart bikers and friendly waitresses. We had a great dinner (at Westside Lilo’s) and even managed to sleep well (despite our old-school motel being practically alongside the railtracks). We liked Lilo’s so much we went back for breakfast (one of our best breakfasts on the road). Funny how it’s often the unassuming little stops that are the most fun.

On Monday 16th it was time to leave Arizona (not far from that west coast now!). We drove back on the Interstate as far as Kingman and then up the quiet, moody 93 towards Nevada (some of the time we could even see the Silver State on the other side of the Colorado river). We left Arizona at something like lunchtime… and we were a little sad about it as we’d had a really great series of adventures there (and that with not even seeing the southern sections). Arizona is much more than just the Grand Canyon state, it really is - more a grand state all round.

Photos of Seligman and the rest of our Arizona ride are here:

Leaving Arizona

That was a long post! Next time Nevada (though of course we've left there already and are heading for LA today...).

Friday, 13 May 2011

New Mexico - Land of Enchantment? Part Two.

So, it turns out yesterday was a bad day to post a blog update. The whole system was on the blink, our first New Mexico post came and went (and then came back again), comments disappeared... very confusing! Right now we're deep into Arizona and lots of great photo days coming up soon so we want to make sure New Mexico doesn't get lost altogether (or our reports of it at least) so here is the second part of this short series. And we'll be back with Arizona... some time next week.

So after Bandelier (see last post) we spent the rest of Sunday driving north east to Taos. The drive took us through a reservation, along the edge of the Rio Grande (we stopped, h paddled, we enjoyed listening to the bilingual Spanish/English kids jumping in and out of languages…) and then we passed through more and more beautiful mountain scenery (at one point we caught sight of the Rio Grande Gorge and it is spectacular!). Then we got to Taos – sleepy little Taos is a smaller, quirkier Santa Fe and it’s at the foot of even higher mountains. The keep-to-the-adobe-look restrictions seem to be well enforced here too – even McDonald’s has no high arch in Taos (see photos).

We’d booked two nights in Taos (at the very reasonable and very lovely Taos Pueblo Lodge) but after our first evening out on the Sunday (lovely food and drink, really relaxed atmosphere, great music in a bar/restaurant – the excellent Taos Inn, hippies aplenty etc.) we booked another night and determined to have a little rest and catch our breath in this special wee place. The next day (Monday 9th) we really did rest (siesta!) and apart from that we just wandered a bit around the centre of the town (a lot of tourist shops but good bookshops, eco-friendly shops and so on too). It’s so beautiful with the mountains all around and the trees and the general air of calm that we really did wind down a little. Then on Tuesday 10th we resumed tourist/travelling duties and visited:

The Taos Pueblo – this is the area next to modern (i.e. Spanish colonial and beyond) Taos where the local Tiwa Native Americans still keep their houses pretty much as they have been for hundreds of years (i.e. no electricity or mains water – you can read about it here). Their leaflet says the Tao Pueblo is “considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited community in the USA”) and visitors pay to enter (not very much) and pay to take in a camera (though you are asked to take photos only for ‘personal use’ hence no photos of the Pueblo will be in this blog). No-one pretends that the locals live only and always here (they have other more modern houses outside the Pueblo walls for the most part) but the area is still very much in use and has a large church (many of the Tiwa are now Catholic as well as keeping to other older beliefs - kind of blended together from what we could understand) and a cemetery within its borders (as well as a lot of other activity going on just outside). We were a little surprised how many of the buildings in the Pueblo were used as shops of some kind just now (selling jewellery, ceramics, clothes, art, very tasty ‘fry bread’) but then tourist destinations are tourist destinations and people have to make a living so there was no reason to be surprised really. I think we just wanted a break from gift shops… but evidently there is no such thing (and then we went mad anyway and ended up buying a necklace, a painting and some fry bread…like a light naan bread with icing sugar on… oh heck, we’ll need a trailer for the car soon… and some new, bigger clothes…).

After the Pueblo (and lunch in the hotel picnic area… and a game of horseshoes there too) we visited some much newer houses – the Earthships that are out on the 64 highway, over on the other side of the amazing, and very gusty, Rio Grande Gorge bridge. The Earthships are eco-friendly buildings first built in New Mexico (about 40 years ago) but now appearing all over the world – their website is here. They concentrate on using renewable energy, using rain/snow water for the building’s water supply and using some recycled materials for construction (mainly car tyres packed with earth and cans and bottles in cement – see the photos and you’ll get the idea). The visitor centre has some information (though we had a few more questions than could be answered by the very friendly, young intern) and it’s undeniable that the buildings are very, very striking (green does not have to be dull or ugly!). You can even rent an earthship for a night to try one out for size (but we already had our names down elsewhere). Interesting to visit – though we would have liked a proper tour rather than the self-guided business. It is a fascinating subject (how to make housing, and indeed all construction, less of a drain on resources) and we are very interested in it. Our Taos photos (including the town, the earthships but not, as I said, the Pueblo) are here:

Taos and surrounding area

On Wednesday 11th it was time to leave Taos and set off down the 64 and past the Earthships again (but this time we kept on going west). Bizarrely the weather had completely changed and on this day, instead of the warm (or downright boiling) weather we’d experienced in New Mexico so far (35C back near Roswell on the Friday), it started to snow. The 64 is a pretty high road (it goes through the San Juan mountains) and at some points we could hardly see the road and the temperature went as low as -6C (and our snowboots and shovel safely back in Ontario…). Compare this photo from this stretch of the drive to the picture at the top of this post!

Luckily though it was only a temporary phase and by the time we got to Chama for lunch it was slowing down and the snow turning to rain. Then by the time we drove further west (through the Jicarilla Apache Nation, more Carson National Forest, more dramatic rocky scenery) the temperature was rising again and it was off with the heating and the fleeces and back to “where did you put the flip-flops?” again. At one point a very small sign showed that the map was right and we were crossing the Great Divide (or Continental Divide of the Americas – see here). Quite exciting… we’ll cross it again some time in Canada on our way back east of course.

We looked for an overnight place in Bloomfield but they appeared to be digging up all the roads so we ploughed (or plowed…) on to Farmington and one of those roads with all the hotels and lots and lots of pick-up trucks full of oil industry guys (from what we could see). The next section of our journey will be grand valleys and canyons and all kinds of wonderful but this New Mexico section has certainly been something special (there is so much history, so much colour and art and beautiful scenery here…). No-one here (especially in Taos) has been very surprised by our ‘off for six months with the kid’ travels – it’s like they get all sorts of people and all sorts of travellers here and we are nothing unusual or strange (and that hasn’t been the case everywhere). And then someone we met at breakfast on Wednesday said they liked the state so much that they were coming back next year for a whole month’s visit and we could completely understand. So as we leave we’d say “New Mexico…enchanting… yes, most definitely”. We loved it.

Monday, 9 May 2011

New Mexico - Land of Enchantment..? Part One.

Somewhere in Texas we saw a car with a New Mexico licence plate. Every state’s plate carries a slogan but New Mexico’s is especially intriguing – Land of Enchantment. Could it really live up to that introduction..? Well, one clue might be that we have taken so many photos in this state that we need to split them into two separate posts! Here are our first few days…

We drove into New Mexico on Friday 6th May – along highway 285 and straight into a place called Loving (a good start, you’d have to admit…). We stopped for lunch (but not the famous caves) at Carlsbad and then proceeded through the tough, dry, so un-Scottish landscape as far as Roswell. Roswell is famous for the was-there-wasn’t-there-a UFO crash in 1947 and as Mark is a keen sci-fi fan (and it was on our route anyway) we stopped there for the night. We visited the UFO museum in the town centre (it’s a bit like a kid’s school project… but cheap to get in), took lots of photos of all the amusing alien art around the town, ate again and went to bed to listen to Texans slamming doors in a La Quinta Inn on the edge of town. Ah well, they can’t all be quiet nights…

On Saturday the 7th we drove through more dry landscape north towards Santa Fe. We stopped for lunch at tiny Vaughn (more great photo opp.s – old motels etc.) and then drove until we saw mountains. The first set of New Mexico photos (the border till look-we’re-nearly in-Santa Fe) are here:

New Mexico incl Roswell

Then we got to Santa Fe… and what a lovely place… one of the prettiest cities we’ve seen possibly. All the buildings in the city have the distinctive New Mexican look (low and brown – keeping strictly to the look of buildings built with adobe bricks from years gone by) and so it means that even downtown car-parks (that’s ‘parking garages’ to you, North Americans) are attractive. To prove this we have included a couple of downtown car-park photos in the Santa Fe set and I bet you can hardly tell which they are. We got to the city early afternoon on a sunny day and so resisted the urge to hide in the hotel and got straight out and on with tourist business. We visited:

The Georgia O’Keeffe museum/gallery – we looked at paintings, watched the really interesting documentary films about O’Keeffe and her New Mexico houses and h enjoyed the kids book about the artist that young visitors are loaned for the duration of their visit. It is a really well-organised museum, I’d have to say. Great security guards – really helpful.

The plaza – which features lots of artists selling their arts and crafts (photo of one – ceramics artist Lynda Feman is included in the next slideshow), lots of people doing serious Saturday evening posing and just generally lots of very friendly folk out and about. Santa Fe reminded us of Asheville, North Carolina (and you might remember how much we liked Asheville… a lot).

The downtown ‘points of interest’ (well, at least their outsides… it was after 5pm when we got to most of them) – the St.Francis Cathedral, the Loretto Chapel, the San Miguel Mission (very old church…well, bits of it…), the “oldest house in the USA” (hmm… not so sure about that one… depends on your definition of house maybe… what about all the Native American places in the area that are significantly older...?).

Santa Fe is full of art and artists and galleries and museums and we probably could have spent a week wandering its pretty streets – eating and drinking, taking it easy and looking at the mountains – but we didn’t. Before we move on though… here are our Santa Fe photos:

Santa Fe

Next! On Sunday 8th May we set off slightly north to the Bandelier National Monument. The drive there passed some great highway art, a casino or two, a place called Camel Rock with the most camel-looking rock we’ve ever seen (“which is the Camel Ro… oh, it's that one!”) and some gorgeous mountain views and windy roads. Once in the National Park we visited the museum about the Pueblo (Native American) people who lived in the area (and who still live in other parts of New Mexico) and then we went out into the beautiful Frijoles Canyon to see some of the homes they made in the rock here around 1100AD (‘cavates’ – fascinating, lots of them accessible to visitors by ladder), the ruins of the other homes and buildings they built nearby in later years (up to about 1400) and the nature trail. It was all really interesting (if very, very hot out there!). There were several other trails we could have tried (as well as the ‘Main Loop trail’ we completed) but really… it was sweltering and we had a few miles to go yet before bed. Highly recommended though, the Bandelier site, and our photos of the road north from Santa Fe and the place itself are here:

Bandelier National Monument

We’ll post photos of Taos and the rest of our time in Northern New Mexico soon. Today we leave New Mexico and head west.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Texas - sure is a lot of it...

Last Monday (on what is now National Bin Laden is Dead Day apparently) we left Louisiana and drove into its huge western neighbour. Straightaway things changed – we saw huge signs reading ‘Guns’ and ‘Ammo’ for a start, never mind a store that seemed to be selling second-hand surface-to-air missiles on the side of a road near Beaumont. Plus there were miles of refineries and more industrial activity than we’ve seen anywhere in the US so far. Was Texas really going to be all the clichés - big, bad and dangerous to know..?

We had no burning desire to go into the nearest big Texan city (Houston) so we kept north of it and had a quiet recover-from-all the fun-of-Louisiana-and-do-some-laundry night in a hotel in Dayton (near Liberty), TX. There was nothing much to see there beyond the biggest cargo trains we’ve ever witnessed but the next day we called in on a friend-of–a-friend in a nearby pretty leafy area north of Houston called, suitably, the Woodlands. There we had a good cup of (hot) tea (Scottish friend of Scottish friend – knows how to make hot tea), a sit in the sun and a good chinwag.

Back on the road we drove west to Austin on the 290 (lovely – hardly any traffic) and got there late afternoon. Austin is a big place for music and laid-back nightlife but obviously a lot of that (as elsewhere in the States) is for over 21s so there’s only so much of it we can see and hear with the small one on board. Instead we drove through the downtown, past the Capitol building (little old Austin has been the state capital since 1839 when someone decided it would make a better capital than “swampy and disease-ridden” Houston… so it says in the Rough Guide) and then down Congress Avenue. At its lower end Congress turns into the very laidback South Congress Ave with its hip motels, vintage clothes shops, bars and music venues and we nosed about there for a bit, found the hip motels were full of music tourists (like ourselves…), had a delicious Italian meal in a courtyard out back somewhere and then left the childless adults to enjoy the nightlife as we sloped off to a motel further down the road (where h could catch her favourite show ‘Dancing with the Stars’…). It’s not rock’n’roll exactly… but what can you do… family travel is what it is… Here are our photos of the first couple of Texas days:

Texas border to Austin

Tuesday we headed just south to San Antonio – not somewhere we’d planned on going but another friend (and former Texas resident) had suggested that we call in there (though her actual phrase was ‘get your asses down there’). San Antonio is only an hour or so from Austin so it was a short driving day which left us loads of time to enjoy the very ample downtown area in S.A. (and the fantastic old hotel where we’d managed to score a cheap, and giant, room). First we visited the Riverwalk area (a phenomenal development – like a modern Venice really, endless little bridges, a serious flood prevention system, heaps of restaurants, many tourists/visitors). The Riverwalk (along with the Alamo and the large university to the north) draws in a lot of visitors to the city and our feelings about this late twentieth century development were mostly good (there are some lovely details in the design, a lot of shade, a lot of variety) but I couldn’t help feeling that it was a little sanitised and corporate in places too (and the big modern hotels can be so ugly… and so… unnecessarily dominating). Still it’s early days for it really – maybe the area will look a bit more natural in a few years time. We picked one of the many restaurants (an Irish – can’t go wrong with the Irish pub…) and had lunch (yes, we are always eating – though inside for me as the Riverwalk is a little too infested with dastardly pigeons… they were on the tables in places – ugh!) and then we took a ride with the riverboat tour people (pretty if very un-Venice in places – “and this is the mall…”). After that we visited the Alamo briefly (downright strange – visiting a monument to a battle against the Mexicans in a place so full of, well, Mexicans) and then escaped from the powerful heat of the afternoon to the rooftop pool of our once-swanky-but-now-reduced-to-Travelodge-conferences-and-skinflints-off-the-internet hotel. Easily the nicest pool experience we’ve had so far – just bliss.

In the evening we walked down to La Villita a small area in downtown San Antonio that is one of the oldest parts of the city. These days it is craft shops (and again just a touch over-renovated for me – it didn’t look real somehow) but the shops had all closed for the day anyway. Instead we found a really good Mexican restaurant and all of us (even h – quite the adventurous eater these days!) ate and drank well (Mojitos? Oh if you insist… that was just us though, obviously). Texas is full of Mexican restaurants – we were told to expect a lot of BBQ but it is Mexican, Mexican all the way from what we’ve seen this trip. Here are our San Antonio photos:

San Antonio

The next day we got back on our planned route and set off north west (along Interstate 10). Not long out of San Antonio the traffic and advertising hoardings petered out and we found ourselves on a pretty long, fairly quiet road through dry, dry land. We stopped anywhere there was a stop really (to break up the journey) – lunch in Sonora (very clean and tidy, very active local history society, rodeo), a look for WiFi in Ozona (good photo opportunities, amusing shopfronts, rodeo) and then finally a stop for the night in Fort Stockton (home of the giant roadrunner, Pepe Paisano… oh and a rodeo). We didn’t visit ‘historic Fort Stockton’ I’m afraid (we just can’t visit everything – we haven’t visited any of the local caves either) but we were out and about in the town a bit (looking for this and that, as you do on the road) and it was busy and hot and very much one of those little towns where Walmart (and a crappy one at that) pretty much is the town’s shopping centre. There was a fair selection of restaurants though and about a hundred petrol/gas stations… and was everyone in town except us driving a big shiny pick-up truck or did it just feel that way..?

Usually the ‘complimentary’ motel breakfasts in the mid-range establishments feature the same characters around the cramped tables (harassed families, cheap work travellers, retired folk in heavy make-up and/or crisply pressed slacks) but this morning we met a lovely biker (biker as in riding Harleys) who, with two friends, is touring the US and Canada in exactly the opposite direction to us. These three solid and very dapper guys had started in Seattle and were working their way towards Florida and we did that whole ‘hey, you’re on the road – we’re on the road’ thing and it was really nice (plus they obviously have a Scottish friend who’s told them a lot of nonsense about Scotland… they seemed to think we all carried guns over there). We see a lot of bikers (especially on this recent southern stretch of the road) but these three were different most notably because they were all three very black (black as in skin not as in leathers). I wish I’d asked to take their photo – one of them was so smart he looked like he was going nightclubbing with Sinatra or something instead of out onto the dusty Texas highway.

We, not so smart in shorts and t-shirts and, by now, one slightly bashed-up off-white cowboy hat, packed up once more and drove up the 285 towards Pecos and out of Texas. We passed what’s left of the local oilfield production, some little ghost towns (oil ones) and a lot more flat land. And then at something like midday today we passed into a new timezone (Mountain time!) and a new state (New Mexico). Here are our West Texas photos:

West Texas to border

So Texas – a varied place with a lot going on here and plenty of great big empty spaces there… how was it for you?

Monday, 2 May 2011

Following the Mississippi to New Orleans (and beyond)

Last Wednesday we woke to find the weather still moody in Memphis. We checked all the forecasts and endless tornado warnings before packing up the car to head south (and it can be tricky for outsiders because locally they do the warnings by county name and often you don’t really know which county you’re in!). The forecast seemed to be OK for south of Memphis from what we could see (nothing terrifying anyway) so we set off down Highway 61 (the ‘Blues Highway’ – the road blues musicians from Mississippi used in the past to get north to Memphis and beyond). Pretty quickly we were in Mississippi state and driving past an outbreak of casino resorts… as well as some very flooded fields, thanks to the recent heavy storms. At one point the highway heading north was flooded but going south it was all passable at least. We did experience some pretty ferocious rain on some of that morning’s drive but luckily there wasn’t much other traffic (it’s not a main highway any more – outranked by the Interstate 55 these days) and, as the song says, we made it through the rain… to Clarksdale, MS where suddenly the sun came out and it was very, very hot again.

Clarksdale is a small place in the Mississippi Delta that feels more than a bit forgotten. Its fortunes are clearly on the turn though as its status as one of the homes of blues music means that music fans, at least, are coming to call more and more. Also it’s obvious that many folk are doing everything they can to get visitors into the town on the back of this (and none less than actor Morgan Freeman who spent some of his childhood in Mississippi and who has now opened a club and restaurant in Clarksdale). We visited the Delta Blues Museum (small, charming, someone has rebuilt Muddy Water’s actual former cabin home inside) and they are currently building an extension to the building so it's obviously doing something right. There are lots of cafés and blues clubs too (including Freeman’s very cool Ground Zero Blues Club – the staff were very friendly and invited us in to take pictures even though we’d already had lunch and were too early for dinner). It was while we were in Ground Zero (signing our names on the wall as instructed) that we saw on the news that a big tornado had just hit Alabama causing much destruction and killing hundreds - quite sobering to see what the storms really can do at their worst.

On the way out of Clarksdale we passed one of the suggested sites for the musician Robert Johnson selling-his-soul myth (where Highway 61 crosses the 49) and then we drove into nearby Tutwiler to see the mural commemorating where W.C.Handy supposedly first heard and named Blues music in 1903. Then we drove on through sunny Mississippi to the capital Jackson where we ate, did laundry and slept (sorry, Jackson, not much else). Here are our Mississippi photos:


On Thursday we left Jackson, MS pretty promptly and set off for Louisiana, getting to New Orleans late in the afternoon. We’d booked three nights in the city and here are a few of the things we got up to:

We wandered the streets of the central French Quarter… really you could walk round this part of the city forever – it has so many beautiful buildings, so many buskers and other entertainers to watch, so many lovely cafés and places to stop, so much lovely food and drink to try, so many interesting people to watch and meet… the weather was just gorgeous too. It is pretty full of tourists but somehow it’s still irresistible… though a few glances at some of the out-and-out drunken mayhem of Bourbon Street was enough (especially with a little one in tow – it was almost like being back in Britain!).

We went to an exhibition about Hurricane Katrina at the Presbytere Museum in Jackson Square. The exhibition covered the history of storms and floods in the area and then what happened in 2005 from lots of different angles. It was very moving – overpowering really.

We went on a trip along the Mississippi on ‘the last real paddle steamer’ on the river (so they said). It was sunny and the calliope (whistle) played a tune as we boarded - see below.

We saw the Preservation Hall Jazz Masters featuring Leroy Jones at a great little venue in the French Quarter. We drank cocktails (in plastic glasses) waiting in the queue – it was all very summer holiday. There was so much other music we could have gone to see (not to mention the whole Jazz Fest that was going on elsewhere in the city during the daytime) but we really enjoyed the one event we picked. Plus there was all the street music of course.

On the second full day we decided h should get first choice of activity (and she always picks animal-related things!) so we took the lovely streetcar along St Charles Avenue, through the beautiful Garden District and to Audubon Park where we made our way (in blistering heat) to the Audubon Zoo. We had a great afternoon there – it is said to be one of the best zoos in the USA and it really was a hit with her, lots of hands-on stuff to do, lots of kids being volunteers around the whole zoo.

We spent our last evening in the French Quarter again (it really is special). We ate at the Napoleon House, watched a magician, shared some ‘beignets’ (lovely little French doughnuts) in the Café du Monde and then finally saw a wedding procession dance by (complete with jazz band). It looked a little like this:

New Orleans photos are here (there’s quite a lot but this is only a fraction of what we took…):

New Orleans

We were so tired after the busy, busy New Orleans days that we slept like logs on the last night and then packed up the car and set off to Cajun Country on the Sunday morning. We drove over Lake Pontchartrain (that is one long bridge/causeway – over 20 miles long!) and then we turned west as far as Breaux Bridge where we:

Ate a fantastic meal at the Café des Amis in that little town.

Went on a swamp boat tour where we saw egrets, a lot of water and then a real live alligator in the wild.

Found our lodgings for the night – a 1950s/Elvis themed shack with a giant lobster (or, considering all the signs for them, a crawfish) outside. It was a metal sculpture, I should point out.

Ate Cajun food and danced to a Cajun band at Mulate’s just near the shack place in the evening.

Our rest-of-Louisiana photos are here:

We absolutely loved our time in Louisiana – what a fantastic place... the accents, the flavours, the sights, the sounds. And now we’re in Texas… and heading west, west, west.