Epic USA Road Trip, part 4: wide, open spaces

My dream vision of a US road trip is a long, straight road receding to a vanishing point on the horizon under a vast sky. It’s something you never get in the UK, because there’s always something in the way (like the Chilterns, or Birmingham). For long stretches the view changed so little, it didn’t quite feel like we were travelling across massive distances. My brain probably didn’t adapt to the scale of the geography.

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This is the view that finally made us feel like we were on holiday…

Mojave National Preserve
Lingering jetlag meant we woke up at Barstow earlier than intended, so we hit the road under a moonlit pre-dawn sky and enjoyed the sunrise over the desert, with distant hills and mountains silhouetted against the orange glow, before turning south towards Cima.

I’ve been fascinated by Joshua Trees since I first saw a picture of one in a New Scientist magazine in my teens; it looked utterly alien to me. They’re only found in the Californian desert, and the Mojave National Preserve has an entire forest of the buggers. The whole desert was green and lush.

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Our kitchen at breakfast…

We stopped for breakfast at the White Cross Memorial in the middle of the Preserve (arriving just as a solo traveller from Colorado was packing up her camp and heading out; I had the nagging feeling she was an introvert fleeing our presence). Starting the day with bacon, eggs, toast and tea in the desert is a bucket list item I never knew I had.

Continuing through the Preserve, we passed tiny settlements (Cima, Kelso) along roads that followed a straight line over every bump and contour, in a landscape fringed by sand-coloured hills and jagged rocks. What was it like to live here? Where did people commute to work? I couldn’t imagine it.

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I love roads like this.

We tanked up at Needles. I found that there wasn’t any way to plug my MP3 player into the car, so we were deprived of our music. I looked for CDs in the gas station, but the only offerings were the sort of music you’d need a lobotomy to enjoy (the sort of genre that sounds like “Murrica You Done Gone Make Me All Proud, sung by Hank Wanker” – that kind of thing). So we decided to make do with a mixture of mellow silence and occasional conversation.

Gas cost $3.89. Once we crossed the state line, a long line of vehicles pulled off the next exit to a gas station where it only cost $2.75. And boy, did we feel like a pair of assholes.

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The road goes ever on and on…

Arizona
After brunch at Kingman, we had a lot of long, straight highway to drive along, which gave us plenty of time to ponder crucial matters such as:

  • How do junction numbers work in the US? We think it has something to do with distance travelled, but we have no idea where the starting points are.
  • Street names are on signs at 90 degrees from the direction we’re used to in Europe. It’s still perfectly logical (maybe more so), just a little disorienting at first.
  • Four-way stop signs in the middle of a highway: seriously?! Either build a roundabout or a proper junction. Don’t make us come screeching to a halt when we’ve got places to go!
  • What’s the deal with all the shredded tyres by the roadside? Blowouts must be pretty frequent…
  • The oil tanker trucks we saw were all unpainted, with blazing sunlight shining off the highly reflective metal. I’m not sure it’s a good idea to blind other drivers like this.
  • What is it with trucks doing 54mph overtaking trucks doing 53mph? Everyone else has to slow down for the half-hour or so it takes for them to complete the manoeuvre.
  • In Europe, only the elderly and disabled tend to drive automatic cars; in the US, with its long, straight, soporific roads, automatics with cruise control are vital. You’d go nuts and let your speed creep ever upwards, otherwise.
  • You can always tell if the driver in front doesn’t have cruise control, because you’ll find you suddenly can’t use yours any more.
  • How boring must it be being an Arizona traffic cop? We drove along a stretch where there were maybe half a dozen patrol cars parked in the middle of the freeway, sitting monitoring the traffic, presumably for hours on end.
  • When a sign says speed limits are “Enforced by aircraft”, does this involve North By Northwest-style strafing runs?
  • In some ways the scenery is reminiscent of Scotland: rugged, rocky terrain with scrubby bushes. The difference is water: Arizona’s rocks are dry and sandy, and the plants are cactuses; Scotland’s rocks are granite and the plants are heather.
  • Roadside billboards advertise a lot of casinos and, in one case, “Fire A Machine Gun – Next Left”. (In Scotland it would be a distillery tour.)
  • In California you can be fined $1000 for throwing litter from your car; in Arizona the fine is only $500. This might say a lot of things about both states.
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The first view we had of Grand Canyon. It did not disappoint!

Grand Canyon
We arrived at Mather Campground mid-afternoon and got the free shuttle to Grand Canyon Village. We walked up to the railing and found that the cliches are true: when you first see it, it takes your breath away. Your brain needs a moment to process what it’s seeing, and then you realise the sheer scale and depth of it all. Then you say “WOW!”

We had two full days to enjoy the canyon, and made as much use of them as we could. The first day we drove to Yavapai Point before breakfast so I could get some sunrise photos; we got another shuttle bus to South Kaibab Trailhead and walked to the aptly-named Ooh-Aah Point, having decided the temperatures were forecast to be too hot for us to go much further down into the canyon (we didn’t want to knacker ourselves with heatstroke when there was so much more to follow).

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There are so many ways you could interpret the words “Ooh Aah”…

We also met a couple who’d been walking all the way from the Mexican border back to their home in Utah. All they had to do was cross the Colorado River and they’d be back in their home state. They weren’t carrying much – just light travel bags – and were going to spend a night down by the river. The guy looked like he was auditioning for a ZZ Top tribute band; they’d been on the go for weeks.

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It’s amazing how many people ignore these signs.

There are warning signs put up by park rangers telling people not to risk their health attempting to walk down to the river and back in a day; people have died trying (and I guess nobody wants to retrieve a corpse that’s been in the sun all day). The signs are illustrated by a cartoon that looks like me reacting to a JJ Abrams interpretation of a beloved science fiction franchise.

Yet, on the way back up, we met a young couple asking if it was far to the river. They had t-shirts, shorts and a half-empty water bottle each. I told them about the temperature forecast, the distance, the elevation, and the ranger warnings about bringing plenty of water and salty snacks (to replace everything you sweat out), and they both went wide-eyed and white (a bit like us in Los Angeles, I guess), before deciding on a more modest hike.

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A visitor to our campsite.

We enjoyed a quiet afternoon (I visited the Kolb museum, about the first photographers and movie-makers to visit Grand Canyon) before dinner, interrupted only by a family of elk passing right through our campsite to drink from puddles under a nearby tap. In the evening we drove back to Yavapai Point so I could get some sunset photos and shots of the stars over the canyon before moonrise.

There were a few others there too, including a husband and wife on a three-week photography road trip (it was great comparing notes with them), and a rather desperate Austrian woman on a bus tour who wanted to tell us all about the horrors of travelling with a load of other middle-aged Austrian women (she made it sound like a mobile prison), and show us every single photo she’d taken. Clearly she was desperate for someone – anyone – else to talk to.

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The canyon looks great any time of day… or night.

After the best night’s sleep we’d had on the trip so far, we spent the next day walking along the canyon rim from Hermit’s Rest back to the village. The shuttle bus driver on the way out was one we’d had before (I think he uses the same jokes on every journey).

The walk was pleasantly green with butterflies, birds and critters scampering about, and gaps in the foliage providing epic views of the Colorado River far below. The trail is on the edge of two different ecological zones, providing a wide variety of trees and flowers mixed together. The elevation here is over 7000 feet (well over 2 kilometres). Being coast-dwellers, we were gasping for air a little.

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When you glimpse the Colorado River, you realise how high up you are…

The trail joined bus stops every so often, disgorging tourists who either didn’t have the time or inclination to walk the whole trail. After having so many sections to ourselves, it felt like these other folk were intruding and occasionally ruining the peace.

At Powell Point we passed a psycho-bitch-mom shouting at her very young daughter, “IF YEW DON’ STAP CRYIN’, YUR NAT GOIN’ WITH THE REST’F US! NUNNA THESE PEOPLE WANNA HEAR YEW CRYIN’! SO, ARE YEW GONNA STAP OR NAT? HUH?” The girl sniffled quietly a bit, and psycho-bitch-mom raised a warning finger; “AH DON’ WANNA HEAR ANUTHA WORD FRAM YEW, YEW UNNERSTAN’ ME?”

It took a lot of willpower on my part not to tell her she was making far more noise than her daughter was. I saw them a few minutes later taking a family photo on top of the Powell memorial, with mom, dad and brother looking serious, and the girl with tears streaming down her face. What a lovely, treasured memory that will be.

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Powell Point, where they ought to raise a flag in my honour, emblazoned with the words “Please form an orderly queue.”

At Powell Point itself, it was chaos as tourists of every nationality jockeyed for position to take selfies and group photos against the backdrop of a truly spectacular canyon view. Rather than join the lunatic scrum, I waited for them to finish before going onto the outcrop to take a panorama shot. When I turned around, I found I had done that most classically British thing: I had started a queue, and people went to the outcrop one group at a time for their photos.

I had brought civilisation to the Grand Canyon. God, I’m good.

Next stop: DEEEEEAAAAATH …Valley.

To be continued…

Click here for more photos taken on the road!

Click here for more photos of Arizona!

Click here for more photos of Grand Canyon at sunrise!

Click here for more photos of Grand Canyon at sunset and night!

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11 responses to “Epic USA Road Trip, part 4: wide, open spaces

  1. This is great! Amazing pictures, and I love your style of travel writing…reminds me a bit of Bill Bryson (that’s a compliment btw). I’ve never done a road trip in America before, but I’d love to see the Grand Canyon. Crazy that there’s no roundabouts, right (not specifically in the Grand Canyon, but you know what I mean! 🙂 )…. as a Brit, I thought that was funny about bringing civilization by forming an orderly queue – ‘way to go’! I hope you had a cup of tea in hand! 🙂

    • Thank you! 😀
      Bill Bryson was a big influence in my teens – these days I try to be more gently sarcastic than caustic.
      As for bringing civilisation to the world:
      *sips tea, pinkie extended* I’d do it again.
      🙂

  2. Terry,
    Love your observations and your writing style! The small signs posted with numbers on the right of the road began when the highway crosses the state line. These mile markers will also correspond to the numbers on a freeway exit. Is in emergency occurs and you call 911, you tell them what mile marker you are near.

    More and more roundabouts are being put in throughout our Michigan and in Indiana. That being said… Americans don’t know how to use them!

    • Thanks Beth! 🙂
      I figured the main advantage of numbering junctions and exits after the distances would be that if a new junction is ever built, you wouldn’t have to re-number all the other ones.
      As for roundabouts: they may be handy, but they were my least favourite part of learning to drive!

  3. There is an app called “gas buddy” that you can get free, it shows gas prices in your area, I prefer a map to you when on a trip I can project how far the next inexpensive gas station is. You will notice the word ‘cash’ in green and some stations. The stations discount if you use cash, or in other words jack up the price if you were using a credit card by about $.10 per gallon.

    • We paid for gas with cash, but we had to say how much we wanted before they’d let us use the pump. This meant looking at the gauge, guessing how many gallons we needed, and then multiplying that by the price. (It’s a good thing our mental sums worked out!)

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