Attention Subscribers!!

•June 14, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Hello Transient Journeys subscribers!

There have been some important changes to transientjourneys.com… For the technically minded, I have upgraded from a wordpress.com site to a hosted wordpress.org site.

For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, then rest assured that it just means that the website is getting a fresh change of clothes and a few nifty extras. The address will remain the same – www.transientjourneys.com. HOWEVER – unfortunately there is no way to bring my precious subscribers across to the new site. So therefore, everyone that is currently subscribed needs to visit the site, scroll to the bottom of the page and re-subscribe using the ‘Subscribe to Transient Journeys’ option.

So, to reiterate, if you are currently subscribed to my blog and wish to continue to do so, then please visit www.transientjourneys.com, scroll to the bottom, and re-subscribe. Oh, and enjoy the cool new look!

This will be the last post I make on the old site… I look forward to seeing you again soon!

Thanks

Mike

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Lost Inside the Beltway

•June 5, 2011 • 1 Comment

The day dawned grey and wet; I was gradually and grudgingly awakened to the sound of ceaseless rain, thrumming rhythmically on the hotel window. I looked outside, bleary eyed and lethargic, with a quickly sinking heart. Any other time and I would crawl back into bed, lose myself in a sea of pillows, pull the covers up and read a good book… but I knew that wasn’t an option today. The ski season was over, and what would prove to be a defining period in my life had drawn to a close. Now I was over four thousand kilometres away, sharing a hotel room with my parents in Washington DC. And we had but one day to soak it in. Pun, unfortunately, quite intended.

So, doggedly, we rose in staggered formation to make use of the single cramped bathroom, dressed appropriately, hit up a nearby McDonalds for its world famous sustenance and jumped on the metro. I guess if I was to pinpoint the single moment in time when I would realise that everything in Washington is old, grand and opulent, it was upon walking into our first metro station. And by the gods, was this thing striking, albeit in a kind of concrete, oppressive way. It was over 30 years old, making it something of a baby compared to its surroundings, but I was still mightily impressed. Though I guess that’s not too hard considering I come from a continent where 30 year old history is practically heritage listed…

The train ride was surprisingly pain free, and in a short time we arrived at Smithsonian Station, which – unless my eyes deceived me – appeared absolutely identical to the station we departed from in every way. I certainly applaud consistency in design, but there’s a lot to be said for individual character as well, and the look of vague bewilderment in our faces upon arrival was laughable. In any case, we ascended via a wide and majestic staircase, crowded with questionable individuals hocking cheap and nasty umbrellas.

Now, allow me for one moment to channel my inner geek. You see, upon our arrival on the vast paddock of National Mall, I realised I found certain things familiar – the imposing, flanking museums on either side, the silhouette of Capital Hill staring proudly across the wide expanse of green at the Washington Monument, the vague outline of the Lincoln Memorial in the hazy and foggy distance. How could this be? I had never visited, and indeed had next to no knowledge of this area. I walked around in circles for a moment, recalling furiously, before it hit me; Fallout 3 – a bloody video game for crying out loud. I was having real-life flashbacks of a computer game. And how I feared for my future as a newly-single man at that moment.

After a quick conference, we decided to walk down one side of the Mall, loop around at the Lincoln Memorial and then up the other side, making a slight detour for the White House. We stopped at a few other interesting structures along the way, including the Washington Monument, impressively surrounded by a ring of American flags. At 169 metres, it is both the tallest stone structure and tallest obelisk in the world. Slightly further on we came across the World War 2 memorial, which was sadly closed to visitors due to a nearby function taking place, Secret Service operatives strutting around importantly.

I was finding myself quite excited to see the Reflecting Pool, which I remembered from the Vietnam protest scene in Forrest Gump, and I so desperately wanted to get a photo of the iconic view down the pool to Capitol Hill on the horizon. I’m sure then, you could imagine my disappointment when we arrived, only to find it had been drained and was basically a construction site – a muddy, machinery filled mess. To add insult to injury, I later found out it was an 18 month restoration project that had literally started only the week before we arrived.

Still, the Lincoln Memorial at the other end of the ‘pool’ was certainly very stately, and provided a good excuse to get out of the incessant rain – a slight but relentless drizzle. Inside the Memorial we found ourselves being looked down on imperiously by a gargantuan statue of Abraham Lincoln, sitting straight backed and proud upon his throne of white marble. To either side the walls were dominated by inscriptions carved into the walls – the Gettysburg Address to one side, mirrored by Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address on the other. We came, we took photos, we read the addresses, and we left. After all, we still had one more important building to look at.

Ahh, the White House. . Let me just say that this was nothing like what I was expecting. I’ve seen plenty of movies, and they all do a mighty fine job of promoting the vast expanse of green grass and gardens surrounding the building, giving me the impression that the house itself was somewhat lost in a secluded botanical paradise. This is all well and good, but it meant that when we saw the actual White House, crammed in between buildings on either side, it was well and truly a ‘wtf’ moment. If I’m completely honest, if not for the small crowd of tourists milling around the observation area, we could have been in danger of walking straight past it. Still, it was awesome to see the building that got all smashed to pieces in Independence Day. And I did spy a large number of badass snipers patrolling the rooftop, which was all kinds of scary awesome.

So I guess you’ve probably noticed that the majority of my knowledge of Washington DC stems from movies and video games? Well, I certainly can’t argue with that. The sad fact is that I’m terribly ignorant when it comes to United States modern history, and nowhere did this manifest quite like Washington. Everywhere we walked we were shadowed by wide eyed tourists, pointing excitedly at various buildings and furiously shooting photography. It’s a pity then, that most of the time I had no idea of the significance of what I was looking at.

Don’t get me wrong; the buildings, monuments and museums were both stately and majestic. Every structure simply oozed history, and each one had its own story to tell. It’s just that…I didn’t know the story. I don’t understand why the Washington Monument stands surrounded by a ring of American flags, or why Lincoln’s second address is inscribed in his memorial instead of his first address. Now this certainly isn’t a slight against Washington. If anything, it’s a slight against myself; my modern history education that simply didn’t concern itself with North America, and admittedly, my own lack of interest.

This meant that the whole day, I was walking around thinking to myself, ‘I should be getting more out of this’. I would look at a building and say to myself, ‘This building is hugely significant in some way’, the problem being that I had no clue why. And there’s no doubt it impacted on my enjoyment of the place. I left the city thinking that Washington DC is full of cool buildings and monuments, instead of being thankful that I stood at the epicentre of such a rich and amazing history. And that’s the hard part – I know there’s so much more to Washington that I never had the historical grounding to grasp, and to me, an avid lover of history, that’s a hard pill to swallow.

Our day ended with a quick side trip into Arlington Cemetery, spur of the moment on account of the fact that there was a lull in the rain to be taken advantage of. And I’m glad we did, because I found it to be the highlight of the day, ironic because we were forced to hurry through due to the threatening weather and quickly-failing legs after six hours of walking. It seemed almost cruel that, after hours of head scratching in the capital, I finally found a place I could lose myself in and was only given a precious short amount of time to appreciate it. The unending sea of headstones was certainly a sobering sight, commemorating as they did every American soldier to fall in battle for their country.

In hindsight, I’m certainly prepared to give Washington DC another go, if only because I know I wasn’t perhaps in the best frame of mind to truly appreciate it. Coupled with my lack of general history, I was also struggling personally at that time. The ski season had ended, and in quite a terribly abrupt manner. One minute I was at the local on-mountain pub saying good-bye to the many friends I made over the season, and then I was in a hire car making the lonely drive to the airport.

A full day spent alone on various aeroplanes and airport layovers and I found myself in Washington, still running in Big White mode, compounded by no sleep for the last 36 hours. My night at the hotel was brilliant, but I still woke up the next morning about 25 hours down on sleep and absolutely emotionally drained. My mind was struggling to comprehend that the season was over and I would never get it back again. Every time I looked around, there was an afterimage of white snow and good friends.

So, don’t take my account of DC as gospel. Go there, see for yourself, and make up your own mind. But take my advice – if you have no knowledge of the significance of the capital, do yourself a favour and become aware. As I certainly will, should I ever find myself here again.

 

Tube Fast, Tube Furious

•May 30, 2011 • 27 Comments

It stands to reason that in the second biggest ski resort in British Columbia, there are a lot of jobs. From Administration to Housekeeping to Lift Operations and hundreds more, there are a veritable truckload of staff that contribute to the (mostly) well-oiled machine that is Big White Ski Resort. And despite the plethora of positions that were available over the 2010/2011 winter season, it’s quite easy for me to make the somewhat bold claim that I had the best job on the mountain. The reason for this is simple – I worked at Tube Town.

Big White’s Mega Snow Coaster, affectionately referred to by mountain staff as ‘Tube Town’, is located at Happy Valley at the base of the mountain village, accessed by gondola from the village centre. Aside from Tube Town, Happy Valley plays host to the highest outdoor ice rink in the world, the magic carpet beginner runs and the Ice Climbing Tower, a gnarly-looking 60 foot artificial ice wall that is traversed with crampons, ice picks and harnesses.

Without a doubt though, Tube Town dominates the valley. With seven runs split up between three slow and four fast lanes, it’s a monster feature and huge draw card for the resort. For those unaware, the Tube Park is basically a big hill cut up into separate lanes, which people ride down whilst sitting in tubes; either individually or in group formations.

Prior to starting employment as a Lifty, Mark and I were already given the heads-up that the Tubie gig was about as good as it got. With this in mind I scrawled the word ‘Tube Park’ big and bold on my list of preferred lifts, giving no other back-up option in the hope of increasing my chances. I also heard on the grapevine that it was quite a coveted position, so the natural pecking order of returning staff would probably be awarded with the lion’s share of available positions.

Thankfully luck was on our side, as we were made aware that no returning staff would be eligible for work at Tube Town. The reason for this was simple and sobering; last season they screwed up. The Tube Park was a shambles, with the staff taking full advantage of the fact that there was no supervisor or structure in place. This season Management was determined to avoid a similar situation, and so the tube park was given a dedicated supervisor, assistant supervisor and filled with – on average – slightly older and more responsible staff. Happily this included Mark and myself.

It quickly became apparent why this was considered amongst the best jobs on the hill; the working hours were simply brilliant. Most people come to a ski resort for two reasons – to get out riding during the day and to party at night. As far as Lift Operations employment went, Tube Town was the only position that allowed us to satisfy both of these key criteria. We didn’t start work until 3pm during the week, and were generally out no later than 9:15pm. This gave us access to a lifestyle that other staff could only dream about – the ultimate way to appreciate all that Big White had to offer.

Let me take a moment to put this in to perspective. Far from a nine to five job, the average day of a Tubie would consist of the following; Wake up at 8am to be out on the hill an hour later, and ride for about four or five hours. Head home for lunch and get to work by 3pm, finish at 9pm or so to be at the pub by 10pm. Drink, play pool and socialise until closing time at 1am, then finally crawl into bed by 2am ready to do it all again the next day.

Without a word of a lie, this schedule represented five to six nights a week for well over four months, with the other one or two nights reserved solely for catching up on lost sleep. It was hectic, and both my liver and wallet cursed me in equal amounts (often on the same night), and was only possible thanks to Tube Town. And by that I’m referring to more than just the working hours.

You see, this year the staff at the Tube Park formed a great bond. This is quite unusual, according to the head of Lift Operations, but the simple fact is that the 20-strong group of staff very quickly became good friends. We grew very close very quickly, as you would imagine when the average day involved riding together, working together and then partying together.

 

As far as the job itself went, if I’m honest I’ll say it was a mixed bag. The Tube Park is squarely aimed at families and children, and generally alternated between very quiet weeknights and very busy weekends. At the start of the season we were all pumped and excited, spinning kids with joyful abandon and engaging customers enthusiastically. Unfortunately though the majority of us had never received training or experience in customer service, and as the season progressed it became harder to put a smiling face on when dealing with rude parents and their bratty spawn.

We did our best to enjoy the job though, and Tube Town certainly played host to a large number of pranks, hi-jinks and generally crazy stunts – only involving staff, mind you. We built snow jumps, giant snowmen and snow caves, and experienced the icy tube runs in ways customers would only dream of. Standing up surfing our tubes, going down in barrels and on our stomachs (with no tube), launching straight through the other end of Tube Town and onto the ice rink… The majority of staff were all young adrenaline junkies looking to one-up each other, and so we took full advantage of what Tube Town had to offer.

So, if you love customers and children in particular, working at Tube Town sounds perfect right? Unfortunately there were a few other general downsides. For the duration of the season Tubies missed out on most of the Lifty work functions, which tended to take place of an evening. This meant no trips to the hockey, no games of broomball and no Christmas party dinner. This was somewhat offset by the fact that we were given our own dedicated Tubie staff parties – three in total over the season – but it sometimes rankled to sit in the freezing cold while our fellow Lifties enjoyed a heightened sense of inebriation.

And speaking of the cold, depending on your constitution this could well be the worst aspect of the job. There was no shelter at Tube Town, only a large fire-pit that was lit every afternoon. This meant that we spent all shift, every evening, in whatever conditions the weather gods saw fit to inflict upon us – including prolonged periods of minus forty degree cold. Staying warm in these conditions proved to be particularly difficult regardless of clothing (all seven layers), and I made a habit of walking in circles for hours at a time, stomping a foot-deep path through the snow as I doggedly trudged around and around.

Oh, and the money was terrible – absolutely woeful. Our shorter working hours meant we were among the least paid staff on the mountain, but I guess that’s the price you pay for getting the highest amount of hours out on the hill. Half of Tube Town cracked 100 scanned days of riding over the season, a huge feat that is often attempted but rarely accomplished.

I’m glad to say that the Happy Valley supervisor was more than happy with our performance this year, and guaranteed all the Tubies our jobs back should we ever return. Whether I choose to or not is a different kettle of fish, but if I did I wouldn’t even consider working anywhere else – Tube Town simply gives you the best of everything. To any prospective Lifties reading this, it’s pretty simple – the Tube Park is the best gig on the hill. And who knows, you might get lucky – as I did – and make some good friends for life…

Revelations

•March 30, 2011 • Leave a Comment

British Columbia has a lot of ski resorts, no doubt about it. From the commercial monster of Whistler-Blackcomb, to the smaller well regarded resorts like Kicking Horse, Red Mountain and Apex, it’s clear that there is a wealth of choice in Canada’s westernmost province. Despite so many options, however, there is one resort that seems to be on the top of everyone’s list – a location universally regarded throughout the skiing and snowboarding community as a Mecca of powder and steep, technical terrain. The name of this magical place? Revelstoke, of course.

As seen in countless snowboarding videos and heard from endless on-mountain pub banter, Revvie is the ultimate snowboarding destination – a mountain of challenging runs that gleefully punishes those who lack the sufficient ability to tame it. Needless to say, a visit to Revelstoke at the end of the season was a must-do for us; to test ourselves, our skill level and our fear threshold, so it was with no small amount of trepidation that five of us squeezed into a car and began the four hour journey north.

A small town that was traditionally supported by mining and forestry, Revvie now relies on tourism for the majority of its income, aided primarily by the Revelstoke Mountain Resort. It seems to be undergoing some sort of slow revival, with a curious combination of new shops flanked by older streets and areas. The snow here is relentless – ten foot snowdrifts pile up on the side of the street, in between houses and against the walls of commercial buildings. It’s a bittersweet sight – it can at times seem like the town that time forgot, but is often overshadowed by a sense of falling inexorably into gentrification and commercialism. I’ve been told the town has grown and changed remarkably in the last ten years, and don’t doubt it will continue to do so for the next ten.

The resort, on the other hand, is all brand-spanking new. The base consists of a shiny new ticketing office, a fancy bar and restaurant, a few retail shops and a lot of construction work. There is only one lift from the base; an enclosed gondola known as Revelation. This extends up to the mid station, where one can either immediately hop on another Gondola and continue upwards, or depart and enter a large cafeteria and restaurant. The food there is uniformly excellent, far better than the traditional on-mountain cuisine to be found elsewhere.

To be fair though, we could have eaten in a dingy takeout store and been happy to do so, because there is one reason people come to Revelstoke, and it certainly isn’t the food. Put simply, this mountain offers some of the most amazing runs I have ever hoped to ride, and then some. The highlight of the mountain is without a doubt the North Bowl, accessed by a ten minute hike from the top of the Stoke Chair. Imagine a huge bowl shaped area, steep and full of fluffy, white champagne powder, and the freedom to ride it wherever you like. It feels more like surfing than riding – leaning back to keep the nose up, and steering with the rear foot like a rudder to carve effortlessly through the snow.

It gets better though, as following the North Bowl sees the rider funnelled into a canyon that is presumably a small creek in the summer. Narrow and technical, the run winds along the canyon floor dotted with trees and with steep, sheer rock cliffs rising away to either side, in some cases actually overhanging the rider as they ride up and down each edge like a natural halfpipe. It is without a doubt the most amazing run I have ever ridden, a perfect example of man versus nature, and screaming down it at the very edge of your ability is an adrenalin inducing experience like no other.

Happily, the mountain is huge, and full of other runs that are no less spectacular in their own right. The tree runs that branch out from the Ripper Chair lead the rider through a magical world of dappled sunlight, open glades and thick, forested woodlands, while the right hand side of the mountain offers wide, powdery runs that sweep lazily around the natural folds of the terrain. On the second day we met up with a local rider who showed us his favourite runs, including a winding tree run that ran from one side of the mountain to the other and back again, taking a full forty five minutes to complete. Considering the whole peak is serviced by essentially only three lifts, it’s stunning to consider the sheer variation and amount of terrain on offer.

Is Revelstoke the perfect mountain? Sadly, it does have its problems. The lack of lifts and abundance of undulations means that most riders will find themselves stranded at least once, needing to hike out of a flat area of snow in which they have become unwittingly lead into. This is annoying, but not nearly as annoying as Revvie’s biggest issue – basically, the lower third of the mountain is terrible. As you descend the mountain the snow starts to develop a crust over the top, then it turns hard packed, and by the time you are at the bottom it feels like riding concrete. It’s a strange concept, but I can say without a word of a lie that Revelstoke has offered me both the best and worst snow I’ve ever ridden, all in one run.

Why is this so? Why not centre the village around the mid-station, so that one never needs to experience the terrifyingly bad snow leading down to the base? I’m no expert, but a friend believes that it is because having the main village at the mountain base gives Revelstoke the highest vertical rise of any mountain in BC – greater even than Whistler, measuring 1713 metres from bottom to top. If this is correct then it’s basically a monumental pissing contest – Revelstoke can claim the biggest vertical – a great marketing coup for them – even though the lower third is almost unusable.

I guess it’s lucky for Revelstoke then, that the upper two thirds of the mountain are just so good. Seriously, Revvie offers such an abundance of quality runs that any skier or snowboarder owes it to themselves to make the trip. After three solid days of riding we left the town exhausted but elated, buoyed by stories of our bravado and death defying escapades. It’s a true testament to the mountain that everyone I know who has made the pilgrimage returns with the same consensus – Revelstoke simply rocks.

Ascensions

•January 15, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Skiers and snowboarders are already a divided lot, and one group rarely needs a good excuse to proclaim their superiority over the other. Fashion, style, safety, form – it’s all fair game and hotly debated. As a snowboarder though, I will grudgingly concede that there is one argument that will never be won, simply because we of the snowboarding variety have no leg to stand on – that of the T-Bar lift.

As universally loved by skiers as it is reviled by snowboarders, Big White’s Alpine T-Bar is actually one of the two original lifts constructed for the resorts opening in 1963. It was relocated to its current location in the early 90’s and has been steadily servicing the mountain since that time. It is ‘driven’ by fellow liftie Dave who is in charge of its day to day operation, a mad keen skier and perennial Aussie country boy.

The T-Bar is a surface lift, meaning that the rider remains in constant contact with the ground, in contrast to regular aerial lifts which remain suspended in the air. It gets its name from the fact that each ‘chair’ looks like an inverted T, and therein lies the problem for snowboarders. You see, riding the T-Bar is dead simple- if you are a skier. Facing forward, they simply stand to one side of the main shaft and rest their behind on the horizontal bar before cruising up the mountain, imagining themselves to be sipping a nice full-bodied red and listening to Ride of the Valkyries.

For a snowboarder though, the experience is dramatically different. For starters, Snowboarders don’t face forward – they are always facing to the side. The solution, therefore, is far from graceful, and also potentially dangerous to any future plans of  procreation; grab the main shaft, and stick the horizontal cross-piece in between your legs. From here it rests heavily on the top of the inner thigh of the leading leg, basically allowing the T-Bar to haul you up the hill by this most sensitive of areas.

Although designed for two riders with one on each side of the main shaft, the fact is that two snowboarders sharing one T-Bar is often more trouble than its worth. For starters, it’s hard to load two riders quickly, having to manoeuvre the cross-piece deftly so that it goes in between the legs of both, and it’s a common sight to see one fail to load properly. Secondly, the boards often cross over, banging into each other to the accompaniment of sympathetic grunts from the owners. Lastly, its just plain weird to spoon with another rider on the lift, both huddled tight to avoid falling off and contributing to the aforementioned board contact. Two skiers though? Fine… they just sit side by side as they calmly discuss their shares and stocks.

At times surreal, alien and breathtaking, the ride up the T-Bar is, for better or worse, unlike any aerial lift you will ever experience. Deathly silent, it is a place for contemplation of the elements and of the awe-inspiring canvas of nature. It is also an event that is heavily dependant on prevailing weather conditions, and it means that no two rides are ever the same.

On a windy day, with the fog creeping slowly over the mountain, the view can be likened to a lunar landscape. The side of the hill is scrubbed bare, revealing an icy cratered surface with wisps of fine snow being stripped away into swirling formations that sweep through the air. In contrast, on a sunny, cloudless day – affectionately referred to as a Blue-Bird Day – the ride up the T-Bar can be breathtakingly majestic. Visibility extends throughout the valley below and to the mighty Monashees in the distance, revealing a romantic vista of snowy glades and pine forests.

And on a day when the village is shrouded in fog and visibility extends only a few metres in any direction, the T-Bar will sometimes suddenly rise up and out of the cloud cover, offering an inversion of elements – blue sky above, and naught but endless rolling clouds below as far as the eye can see, until the jagged tips of the far mountain ranges poke through on the distant horizon.

Another bonus from riding the T-Bar is the close proximity you will find yourself to one of this areas most captivating sights – those of the Snow Ghosts. Essentially they are simply trees covered in snow, but in reality they form chaotic shapes that little resemble their original form, appearing as misshapen lumps and mounds, arches and pillars. Like dali-esque snow statues they sit, forlorn and bowed under natures weight, patiently awaiting the arrival of spring and the chance of renewal. Personally I find them to be the prefect compliment to the sometimes alien landscape found at the top of the mountain, emphasizing that we are indeed in another world.

And what a sight there is when one arrives at the top. Here is to be found some of the most variable weather conditions on the hill – gale force winds, biting cold, impenetrable fog, and some of the best views you will ever see. Looking down on the other lifts, themselves normally so high but now crouched down the mountain far below, one gets a sense of the scale of Big White and of nature itself. High altitude contrails from passing aeroplanes streak the sky and the upper lift shack sits buried in a permanent crust of ice and snow. It is always extreme at the top of the T-Bar, often representing the utmost of the elements for good or ill.

And, truth be told, even though snowboarders pay lip service to their intense hatred of the T-Bar, I think that deep down they all secretly love it, if only for what it gives – access to amazing runs, untouched powder, steep canyons and twisted forests. It is a playground at the top of the mountain and only one way to get there, so for that reason I could never truly dislike the T-Bar – only reluctantly tolerate its presence.

Monoliths

•November 20, 2010 • Leave a Comment

It was early in the day but scorching hot when we pulled into a small gas station, standing solitary and proud in the vast expanse of the Navajo desert. The relatively green environs of the Grand Canyon were naught but a distant memory as we made our way doggedly through the wastelands of north-eastern Arizona. To put ourselves in this precarious position was no idle decision though; we were on our way to Monument Valley – a destination that is larger than life, no small feat in a country where everything is bigger.

The gas station had a small supermarket attached to one side that was selling all sorts of Native American related paraphernalia; some bizarre, some interesting and some downright commercially shameless. It was a not-so-subtle reminder that we were driving through the heart of the Navajo Nation, a 67,000 square kilometre territory self governed by the Native Americans. Further in the store, however, past the overpriced baubles and trinkets, we discovered jerky nirvana – a whole shelf full of weird and wonderful jerky flavours, in such vast quantities that I was momentarily struck dumb. I recovered soon enough though, and left clutching my huge bag of dried meat with glee.

Unfortunately we soon witnessed another reminder that we were travelling through a largely marginalised society – the habitats were quickly reduced to old corrugated sheds and the like, the houses seemingly put together from the remains of general industrial debris. Old cars, stripped out and on blocks, outnumbered the actual working vehicles by a significant amount. It presented a sad sight – there was no grass here, only red dirt, and the squat, squalid houses sat in the dust like forgotten children’s toys. From my air conditioned seat the world outside seemed hard and harsh, and I wondered how much harder the Navajo must be to live here.

After a few hours we passed into Utah, before turning off the main highway to make our way into Monument Valley. The general traffic increased and RVs became a common sight as we passed a few smaller buttes, miniature in size but still well worth a stop and a look. The road took us back into Arizona and then once again into Utah before we finally finished at the visitors centre, where we got our first glimpse of the real thing.

Glancing down into the valley I realised that the imagination of my youth had taken a divergent path from cold, hard reality somewhere along the line. I’m not exactly sure why, but for some reason I always had an image in my head of the road passing straight in-between the magnificent formations – An iconic view of America with the cracked and baking highway in the centre and the giant buttes rising up on either side. This is not the case though; they are all out in the middle of the desert, reachable only via dusty off-road tracks. Luckily for us we were in a four wheel drive, so after lunch we made our way down into the valley to get up close and personal with the silent giants.

Down there it became apparent that, despite the warning signs, four wheel drives were only optional. The narrow tracks became inundated with sedan toting tourists that displayed a remarkable lack of even basic driving comprehension, let alone handling a vehicle in soft sand. The track itself was quite hazardous in spots, with unannounced cliffs and troughs appearing suddenly in front of us, and it certainly wasn’t helped by the wannabe rally-car drivers zooming around us.

The loop we drove took in most of the major sightseeing spots, with the obligatory hawkers perched under tarps advertising their wares – certainly a tough way to make a living. We also passed a few horse ranches and small Navajo houses along the seventeen mile track.

As we made our way back up to the visitors centre we were forced to a stop by a cavalcade of horse floats, slowly making their way down the steep switch-backed dirt road. The vehicles towing these floats were so large that they needed both sides of the road to negotiate the sharp turns and so we were unable to pass them. As we looked up the hill there appeared to be no end in sight – we sat for half an hour as truck after truck drove slowly down. By the time we were able to progress there was a line of cars behind us stretching deep into the valley, horns tooting impatiently.

Eventually we hit the open road once again and left Monument Valley dwindling behind us. We hooked back up with the main road and plugged our next destination into the GPS – Four Corners, a popular tourist destination that stand at the intersection of Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado. Half way there though we spied a traffic worker holding up the dreaded red sign, so we slowed to a stop in front of him. We had no idea what manner of road-works were being undertaken though as the two kilometre stretch of road in front was all but empty. Puzzled, we sat and waited patiently.

Half an hour later, with the sun sitting low in the sky, our patience was wearing thin. An hour later, it was gone. The sun was setting and we had resorted to sustaining our flagging bodies with copious amounts of beef jerky and Powerade. Looking behind us we could see that an impromptu party was taking place in the middle of the road, with people walking around everywhere to the sound of the occasional irate horn. At last, an hour and fifteen minutes later, we were waved through. The roadworks were impressively long; taking nearly fifteen minutes to drive through them and stretching for several kilometres, but I question the wisdom of such large scale undertakings if the flow-on effect involves making people wait for over an hour in the middle of the desert.

Nevertheless, we sped onwards to Four Corners, relishing our newfound freedom and cursing the traffic gods in equal measure. It was with dismay though, that we arrived at the entrance to the national park to find it firmly closed. Our roadworks delay, coupled with a changing time zone, meant that we had missed the parks opening hours by fifteen minutes. It was a cruel blow, considering the afternoon we had endured, and so it was with heavy hearts that we made our way to Durango, Colorado.

I’d love to say that our night ended on a high note but sadly that wasn’t the case. Durango seemed like a nice little town, but for dinner I suffered through an overpriced meatloaf and decided to call it a night. It was certainly a day of mixed fortunes, but for the chance to see the majestic buttresses of Monument Valley I’d do it all again.

 

Onwards to Arizona

•November 10, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Behind us, glittering in the early morning sun, was Vegas. In front of us, miles and miles of desert. It’s easy to forget, while cruising down Las Vegas Boulevard, that outside the glitz, glamour and green grass is an eternity of arid wasteland, but five minutes out of town it all came flooding back – the heat, the brown, the mind-numbing monotony, the giving-of-thanks that I wasn’t driving. Because we knew it would be a long day – seven hours without stops, but we were planning lots of stops. You see, today we were going to pass through not one but two cultural icons of the United States – the Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon.

Upon approach to the dam, our enthusiasm was somewhat curbed by a security checkpoint that required all cars to stop and show valid identification or passports. In addition, some vehicles were asked to move to a nearby carpark for a random search by armed guards. As luck would have it our car was chosen, ostensibly because it had a roof mounted storage box – apparently terrorists only transport dangerous weapons and goods in roof mounted storage boxes. After a half hour of waiting, we were subjected to a two minute search of the box and waved through.

After a short hunt for the ever-coveted car space, we took to our feet and hit the pavement. Bec, our resident Engineer, was almost giddy with excitement as we approached the dam wall. And I can tell you, it is impressive. When looking at our trip as a whole I realise that I was pretty clueless when it came to American cultural landmarks, and this was no different. I had no idea it was such a tourist destination until we arrived to find it crawling with people, cameras flashing everywhere and tour guides shouting through microphone systems.

Subsequent research has revealed that the dam was constructed between 1931 and 1936, and wasn’t officially known as the Hoover Dam until 1947, prior to which it was known as the Boulder Canyon Dam. It had no small fair share of construction issues, and over one hundred people lost their lives during this period. Interestingly, the first man to die was a surveyor who fell while scouting out the site prior to construction, and the last was his son, who fell from an intake tower and died on the exact same day thirteen years later. Today the Hoover Dam is visited by just under a million tourists annually and contributes power to no less than fifteen regions of Arizona, Nevada and California.

The first thing that hit me, and indeed the thing that I will forever associate with the Hoover Dam, was the architecture. To be precise, how much the architecture looks like it came straight out of Star Wars. The original Star Wars trilogy that is, not the dodgy newer ones. It has a look that would have been perfectly suited in the jungles of Endor  or half covered in the snows of Hoth; a sort of retro take on a futuristic look that Star Wars did so well. I could almost picture it teeming with patrolling Storm-Troopers, illuminated by the flashes of spacecraft arriving and departing.

We spent a good hour touring the dam, learning lots of interesting but ultimately forgettable factoids, while running the tourist gauntlet. I liked the small memorial halfway along the dam that marked the transition from Nevada to Arizona, mostly for the ability to skip in front and leave Renee behind in another state. It was also fascinating to gaze out over Lake Mead and observe just how far the water levels have dropped since construction – the bleached white rock walls, formerly underwater, stand out in stark contrast with the rest of the canyon and present a worrying sight for environmentalists.

Eventually beat down by the exposed and inexorable heat from the sun, we made our way back to the car for the next leg of our journey. Our second stop was to be the south rim of the Grand Canyon, a good 250 miles away and through largely unexciting vistas. We drove for around four hours when suddenly the landscape started to change dramatically – the desert fell away to be replaces by pine forests and the wondrous colour of green was introduced back into our lives. We stopped at the entrance to the Grand Canyon National Park to un-kink our backs, eagerly awaiting our first sight of the canyon.

To say it would be a surprise would be an understatement, though not for the obvious reasons. As we drove along, both sides of the car showed nothing but thick pine forests as far as the eye could see, which was admittedly not very far. There was no change in elevation and nothing whatsoever to indicate that the mother of all canyons stood just over yonder. It made me think of the original inhabitants or settlers, and what they must have thought when they first walked through the forest literally up to the lip of the canyon – It must have been all the more awe-inspiring for its abruptness.

For us normal people that now approach through a sea of tourists and sign-posts, I’m happy to say that it is still an extremely moving scene. I’ve lamented the inability of the camera to properly convey scale before, and I will again. No photo will ever demonstrate the enormity of the Grand Canyon, and the emotions that are felt while standing at the edge and gazing out. We arrived late in the afternoon, and the sun was low and casting long shadows throughout the canyon. Everything was tinged with red, gradually receding into a hazy blue on the far wall, and it presented quite the panorama. Bald Eagles circling lazily below us completed the picture.

We stopped at a number of lookouts along the southern rim, each more picturesque than the last, before the setting sun finally forced us to our final destination; the town of Flagstaff, Arizona. There we had the dubious pleasure of pitching out first tent, what would prove to be the first of many times in the next week and a half. After preparing our campsite in the dark we donned some suitably fashionable attire and made our way into town for a meal.

It was here in Flagstaff that we discovered something that would serve us well in the coming weeks – the USA knows how to do pubs. It seems that every town we stopped in had a cheap and cheerful pub, often with an attached microbrewery, offering top quality staple pub food like burgers and roast sandwiches for embarrassingly low prices. Say what you want about the Americans – they certainly have their small town pub scene down to a fine art.

So we found the end of our day in the Flagstaff Brewery, chomping on dirty burgers and washing it all down with sweet, glorious pints of local beer. To one side, a party of what appeared to be dress-up lumberjacks was in full swing, and I felt a keen sense of beard envy. At least fifteen people, mostly hairy males but also some females, were dressed in matching red flannelette shirts and having a rowdy old time, shouting and cheering while waving around rubber axes. We watched, we laughed, and we remarked that we really were in the good old US of A. Where else would we see this?