This morning we drove to Williams, and from there caught the historic Grand Canyon Railway train to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Like Monument Valley, we have all seen the images, and then so frequently, but nothing can prepare you for the reality. It is not just the width and the depth of the canyon, nor the beauty of the striations and rock formations but, rather, the enormity of the whole site and of the time scale taken to create it – mainly through erosion by the waters of the Colorado River (which is occasionally visible a mile below) over a period of some 17 million years. But even that timescale pales into insignificance in comparison with the age of the 2 billion year old Vishnu Schist rock at the bottom of the Inner Gorge. We walked the trail around the South Rim (getting caught by a very impressive sudden storm on the way) and so were able to follow a series of information panels accompanied by samples of rocks taken from every stratum in the canyon. Millions and billions of years are beyond my true understanding and I left the site, as I had left the Imax cinema at the Smithsonian in Washington, feeling humbled. On the train journey back we saw a herd of elk and another very impressive storm. I shall pass over the two hour wait for our Amtrak train to materialise. By midnight we were in our sleeper car on the way to California.
The rest of yesterday afternoon, as we made our way to our next base camp at Flagstaff, we were chased across the Arizona desert by storms. Where there are big skies there can be big weather. (At one stage, looking back, I could see three separate storms behind us on the desert, with good weather in between.) Our hotel boasts a two-mile walk through a Ponderosa pine forest, so we set off for a pre-dinner walk. Half way around, though, a storm raced up on us and we had to run back, lightning and thunder crashing about us. Today, storms have crashed about us, with plenty of spectacular air-to-ground lightning, some of it close by. The locals don’t seem to mind, though. In downtown Flagstaff this afternoon people were wandering around apparently oblivious to the lightning strikes just near them. This evening we ate at Black Barts Steak House, Saloon and Musical Revue. It was a theoretically bizarre dining experience but, in fact, worked very well. From time to time the waiters get up onto a stage and sing – sometimes alone, sometimes with others, and always accompanied by a good pianist. It was great fun. (We quizzed our – singing – waitress. Flagstaff is a university town and most of the waiters and waitresses are stduents). All too quickly our solitary rest day was over. Tomorrow we’re back on the road.
In Flagstaff the old Route 66 is much in evidence, but now as ‘Historic Route 66′ (the route having been decommissioned in 1985). Indeed, since Chicago (or, indeed, since New York) we have been travelling with a Jack Kerouac connection (and, not by coincidence, N° 1 sprog is also reading On the Road on the road, as it were). Kerouac stayed back in Denver for a while. Hugo of New York wants me to point out that Kerouac wrote the following about that experience: “Down in Denver, down in Denver, all I did was die.” I wonder if Hugo has seen the 1995 film, Things to Do in Denver when You’re Dead, in which those particular Kerouac lines, said by Kerouac’s alter ego, Sal Paradise, get cited. Hugo’s underlying point is that Kerouac got bored in Denver. But did he? According to this blog, he fell in love with the place so much that he bought a house there. As to Denver in On the Road, it appears in Part One, when Sal does a lot of partying, Part Three, when he is sad and lonely, and Part Four, when he sets off towards Texas. I didn’t see the 2012 film adaptation (which got poor reviews). Hugo?
We pulled into Goulding’s trading post for lunch. A storm blew up whilst we were there and, for a short while, there was a torrential downpour (rare to see such a phenomenon in the desert). The trading post had the standard giftshop full of Indian-made trinkets and souvenirs and, off to one side, a nondescript small stone building described as a museum. Preferring a museum to a trinket shop I went to investigate and so stumbled across an enchanting museum with a strong European connection. It is, in fact, the story of three men - Harry Goulding, originally from Durango, Colorado; Josef Muench, originally from Schweinfurt, Bavaria; and John Ford, originally from Cape Elisabeth, Maine – and one woman, Leone Knee, also from Durango. In 1921 Harry married Leone, giving her the nickname ‘Mike’. They set up their trading post, adored the landscape and became close to the local Navajo Indians. Six years later, the young anti-fascist Muench threw a tomato at Adolf Hitler during a Nazi rally in Schweinfurt. Thereafter he realised he was a marked man for the local thugs so he left to seek his fortune in America, ending up in California. A keen amateur photographer, he became entranced by Monument Valley. Whilst taking phorographs there he stayed at Goulding’s many times. When the area was hit by the Great depression, Harry thought that the Valley would be an excellent place to make films, so he and Mike took their last sixty dollars and several of Jozef Muench’s photographs with them to Hollywood. There, they camped outside John Ford’s office, putting the photographs on display. When Ford saw the pictures he was immediately intrigued and decided to make his next (1939) film, Stagecoach, there. It was the film that made John Wayne’s career but it also put Monument Valley into the minds of cinemagoers as quintessential cowboy and Indian territory and thereafter appeared as the backdrop to many films (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, My Darling Clementine, The Searchers, Fort Appache, Cheyenne Autumn, and The Eiger Sanction being among them). Goulding’s then turned into a sort of base camp for film productions, including a canteen and lodgings. All of this is lovingly documented in the museum, which has preserved the trading post and its living quarters, together with many cinematographic momentos, much as they were when Harry and Mike lived there. (The building itself served as an ‘extra’ in several films.) It is a wonderful small museum and well worth a visit.
As we headed south towards Arizona all vegetation disappeared, even the ubiquitous sage brush, and the sandstone rock turned red. Now we were in the desert and the rock formations became ever more spectacular. On the distant horizon they could pass as mythical cities, complete with spires and towers. Closer-up, the rocks reveal their sedimental striations, each surrounded by a sloping skirt of eroded spoil. They are unforgettable sights. We stopped at the ‘Forrest Gump’ point (the one where he runs along the long, straight road) and the Redlands Viewpoint. We could see faint dust towers in the distance, where the native Indians run tours by car and horse for toursists. We knew we would soon be moving on and wouldn’t, alas, have time even for that, let alone to stay for a sunset or a sunrise. But throughout this trip we have consoled ourselves with the idea that these visits are only ‘aperitifs’ – tasters, or appetisers – and that we’ll be back to explore them properly. This is certainly one of those places where it would be good to wander and admire nature’s brilliant sculptures and camp under the stars. And then, in the midst of this, I came across an extraordinary European connection that was in none of our guidebooks, but deserved to be. But that will be for my next post.
Today, in perhaps the most evocative of our road trips, we drove out of southern Colorado into Utah and from there into Arizona. The landscape changed gradually from the green-topped mesa where the ancient Pueblo peoples once eked out a living through increasingly arid landscapes, though always punctuated by the vivid green of the vegetation close to the San Juan River. The region we traversed is known as the Four Corners Region. State boundaries in these parts were drawn with a ruler and the Four Corners Monument marks the only spot in the whole of the United States where four states – Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah – meet. This is also Navajo Indian land, with a Hopi Indian reservation in the middle (and an Ute bit in the north-eastern corner). The long, largely straight, roads are punctuated by an occasional concession (trading station), always Indian run. The further west we travelled the more extraordinary the geology we encountered. Stone ‘monuments’ we visited in Utah included the twin rocks at Bluff, the Valley of the Gods, and Mexican Hat. But nothing prepared us for Goosenecks. Its entrenched meanders (that’s the correct geological term) coiled around 1,000 feet (300 metres) below us, nibbling at the 300 million year-old rocks of the Paradox Formation, and it is easy to forget that at this point the river itself is some 1,200 metres above sea level. Moreover, the canyon is hidden until you are virtually upon it so that the ‘wow factor’ is intense.
I learned from my Arizona Daily Sun (‘Serving Flagstaff and northern Arizona since 1883′) today that ‘hundreds of new (Arizona) state laws will take effect this coming Thursday. If you have a child between the ages of five and eight who measures less than 4 feet 9 inches then you must use a specially designed booster seat in your car – or pay a $50 fine. As of this Thursday Arizonians will be able to have their eyebrows plucked by unlicensed eyebrow threaders, show proof of car insurance on their mobile phones, study the Bible in school for literary purposes, hunt with weapons without regard to the number of bullets they hold and with a silencer on the muzzle. Among the 363 bills that Governor Jan Brewer signed into law are measures to exempt dogs used in ranching from the normal cruelty laws and (music to my ears) the creation of an official state ‘poet laureate’. So now you know…
After our lunchtime wander we took the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad down to the other end of the line, at Durango. If you want to know what steam travel in the Wild West was truly like then this is definitely one of the places to come. Steam engines have worked continuously on the line since the 1880s and all of the rolling stock is original. The 72 kilometre trip takes ages (and that’s going downhill!) and the stretch nearer to Durango, where the landscape flattens out a little, is relatively uninteresting (apart from the deer) but after quitting Silverton the railway faithfully follows the River Animus (its wonderful full Spanish name is ‘Animus Perditas’ – or the River of Lost Souls), including creeping along the sides of a series of very steep-sided gorges where it is probably better not to look directly down because there is nothing between you and the river to stop you becoming a lost soul. There is a photogenic stretch where the train turns back on itself and that’s where my illustration comes from but for much of this stretch the train seems to be literally teetering on the edge. On the way down I was excited to see plenty of evidence of beaver activity, in the form of gnawed trunks and dams constructions, though none of the animals themselves. A railroad town built to service the San Juan mining region, Durango has a lively buzz to it and a selection of good restaurants. This evening we ate fusion/Japanese.
From Ouray, we took the vertiginous million dollar highway (there are plenty of stories about how it got the name, but the building of the road certainly opened up the mountains to proper prospection) up to Silverton, stopping off on the way to look at the remains of the Idarado Mine (there are plenty of remains of mines around, but this site is one of the most visible and extensive). It’s a desolate spot now, well above the treeline. An information panel explained that the mine’s Yankee Girl Shaft, which burrowed down some 1,200 feet, produced over $12 million in ore during its 16 years of operation, estimated to be worth over $100 million in today’s market. The mine also sported a five-and-a-half mile long tunnel connecting it up to another mine in a neighbouring valley. The Red Mountain (guess why it’s called that) mining district was and probably still is full of gold, silver, copper, zinc and lead. The tailings from these works are splayed out spectacularly over the mountainsides. Cadmium and lead has leached into local water supplies and a lot of work has had to be done to neutralise some of the worst effects of this polution. From there we drove on to Silverton which, as its name suggests, is a former silver mining camp. On the way there we spotted a Harley Davidson (this is biker land) with a pet dog sitting on the pillion, complete with goggles, crash helmet and scarf! Like Ouray, Silverton was also once a rough place where prospectors came down from the surrounding mountains to drown their sorrows or drink their earnings (Silverton itself is, at 2,836 metres, one of the highest towns in America). It also had a ‘wrong side of the tracks’, for Silverton is the upper terminus for the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad which, like the million dollar highway, opened up the mountains to prospectors and the mining industry. Before catching the train we had a wander around. Silverton has a population of 531, dividing into 255 households or 149 families. And yet, when we stopped counting, it has at least five churches in good repair. Local religion may flourish but, despite the local population being over 97% white, it is fragmented.
We set off to the south early today, at first towards Ouray, following the Gunnison River. Off to our left were the mesas – table top mountains – but these soon gave way to more traditional (or familiar) alpine-type areas. This area is known as ‘the Switzerland of America’, because it sports a number of ski resorts, including the best known, Telluride (which also has a jazz festival). We are in the Wild West now. Butch Cassidy robbed his first bank here (the San Miguel Valley Bank in Telluride) and Ouray, our first port of call, still has some of the architecture (above all, the 1876 Beaumont Hotel) dating from its time as a town full of prospectors, spending their gold money on women and whiskey. (Women, though, soon started to clean the place up.) It’s a pretty place but, looking at its main street with the boutiques for stop-off coach parties, I wondered what it must be like when the tourists are not around. I have made a point during this trip of buying at least one local newspaper every day and so today I got the Ouray County Plaindealer (a weekly). The paper publishes the Marshal’s and the Sheriff’s logs and they give an idea: a ‘two-vehicle accident on private property; moderate damage, no injuries’; ‘officer stopped motorist and notified him he had a flat tire’; a ‘female with shortness of breath transported to hospital’; an ‘intoxicated individual’; a report of cows on the highway; a ‘car deer accident minor damage’; a male contacted for ‘urinating in Hartwell Park’… Andy Warhol’s observation about small towns came back to me. Clearly, Ouray’s wild past is well and truly behind it.