Route 66, Four Corners and windy landscapes- the long way from Houston to Phoenix: USA PART 2
The second half of my USA adventure was all about the landscapes of the South West and my main purpose of coming to the country in the first place. I love the feeling of the empty road, the wide open spaces, the whole lot of 'nothingness' this part of the world predominantly is...here I can sit back and have nature come to me in all it's wonderful glory from deserts to mountains to grassy plains and all the incredible land forms in between that have formed over millions of years.
In one long, flat day of driving through Louisiana Cajun country and the Texas oilfield's I made it to the sprawling metropolis of Houston with my only stop being the Tabasco Factory on Avery Island where did a self guided tour and was in pure hot sauce heaven- soo many samples!
In one of the few areas that didn't get flooded by Hurricane Harvey on the North West of the city I did some much needed relaxing at my friend's John and Jen's house where sampled some of the best Mexican food, watched 'World Champion's' the Houston Astros play the Yankees in Baseball and did a tour of the Johnson Space Center seeing Historic Mission Control, the enormous Saturn V rocket and all the new space modules and lunar rovers ready for future missions to Mars.
From Houston I had a few days in Dallas-Forth Worth attempting country music dancing, driving on highway in monsoonal rain, lining up for 45 minutes for a famous BBQ place, watching Avengers- Infinity War on IMAX, hearing the conspiracies on the Grassy Knoll where JFK was shot, enjoying a house party for Cinco De Mayo and spending an afternoon in the cities lively entertainment district, Deep Elum, sampling beers/pizza/burgers/live music/street art. For me the most memorable part of my stay was accidentally straying into a pro gun rally near the annual NRA conference which felt more than a little intimidating especially when the open carry law in Texas meant many had big semi-automatic gun's on them; it was interesting to see the other side of the debate and I for one agree that it is the person not the weapon that is the problem.
It was now time to drive all the way North to Oklahoma City and join the 'Mother Road'- Route 66! I went along it's path West to Amarillo stopping off at the an old gas station, the informative Route 66 Museum in Clinton, Washita Battleground (where Native American's were slaughtered in 1868), the crazy grafitti ridden Cadillac Ranch and of course the Big Texan Steakhouse. Here they do a 'free' 72 oz steak if finished in under an hour and something I had set my eye on for years but with the amount of fat on it, fact you are put up on a table in front of everyone and also have to eat a bunch of sides I wisely stopped myself- the 30 oz with Rocky Mountain Oysters (fried bull's testicles) was enough.
The second day of Route 66 was filled with nostalgia as I stopped at multiple places I had starred on my google maps from research had done beforehand- abandoned towns & gas stations, original sections of road, neon signs from the 50s, quirky hotel's/cafes/curio shops, road markers, the New Mexico boundary. I was loving it all and trying to imagine how the road must have been when the I-40 interstate didn't exist and this was the only way to get to southern California by car.
After nearly 600 miles I made it to Albuquerque New Mexico which is most famous for being the lcoation of two of my favourite shows, Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, so of course went to as many of the iconic filming locations as one afternoon permitted- Walt's/Jessie's houses, the A1 car wash, playground Mike hung out at, Tuco's headquarters and Loyola's Diner where many meeting's took place in both shows- friendly staff and delicious food!
Up until this point of my trip I had only camped for a couple of nights as had been staying at hostel's/AirBnB's/couchsurfed/cheap hotels and for the most part with people I knew so was looking forward to getting back to nature and really begin seeing those epic landscapes when left Albuquerque. My first hike in the SW was at a lesser known place called Kasha-Katuwe (or Tent Rocks) National Monument which is located on the Cochiti Pueblo (Native land) and has some fascinating rock formations and sweet views as well as providing me with my first slot-canyon and the heat/dryness of the desert.
Now off the highway's and on road's which don't go to big population centre's I hit the cruise control, took it all in and even skyped home/my dog as my 4G LTE worked unbelivable well.
On roads straight as an arrow I entered Colorado and eventually National Park number 2 of my trip- Great Sand Dunes. From a distance they just looked like a foreword to the mountains behind but upon closer inspection these really were the largest dune formation's in North America. With some luck I was able to grab one of the few remaining walk-in camping spots, set up, eat for the first time since breakfast and prepare to go for a wee walk. Trying to climb up a 500 foot sand dune completely on your own with 1 litre of water was not the ideal way to find out how bad my cardio but the view of what was akin to a mini Sahara made it worth it. Thing's didn't get much easier at the ridge with the a fierce wind and higher dunes lying in weight and by the time was done I don't think I could have been any sandier if I tried. The problem was that the outside showers did not work so sink washed in the disabled toilets to feel more human then enjoyed the dusk sky with a can of beer and some snacks.
I set off at dawn filling up with petrol just in time and seeing the landscape change quite dramatically from flat valley floor to trees to a 10,000ft mountain pass not far off the snow line before dropping into the skiing/outdoor activity central area between Pagosa Springs and Durango with the only downside being witness to a deer that moments beforehand had gotten hit by a car and was flailing on it's side at Death's door- scary how easily they just jump out at you. I reached Mesa Verde National park early afternoon, paid crazy money to camp (pay per pitch so much cheaper then more of you) and did a scenic drive atop the mesa to the centuries old settlements built into the limestone cliff's by the Pueblo Indians where viewed the Cliff Palace and did a very informative tour of Balcony House- scaled wooden ladders, squeezed through tunnels and tried not to fall off the edge of a cliff.
After stocking up on the cheapest produce I have ever seen in the nearby town of Cortez Walmart I hit the desert and temperatures above 30c that would be near constant for the next week. I took the Kia Soul off road as close to the black monolith that is Ship Rock as felt sensible to do so (just leaving the asphalt was risky enough), lay on Utah/Colorado/New Mexico/Arizona at the exact same time at the touristy Four Corner's Monument, was nigh on forced to watch a video of how the Mormon's endeavoured to settle Utah at Bluff Fort by people in costume and did the full 16 mile off road drive in Valley of the Gods to the staggering graded dirt switchback road that is called the Moki Dugway.
You would think after all that that my day was over but it certainly was not as an ever constant wind that, up to now, had not affected me but would make my intended camping spot impossible. Perched on the edge of a deep canyon is the Gooseneck State Park but with no shelter and solid ground my tent nearly ripped apart before I had even put all the pegs in, and this was after I was mere millimetres from putting my hand on a Scopion. A lady helped me get the tent back in the boot and I left for sunset photos at Forrest Gump Point where encountered more danger's in the form of vehicles that had to dodge to get the right photos alongside other's doing the same. I spotted a track nearby and so went a quarter mile off the main road out of sight where stayed the night sleeping on the driver's seat after drinking warm whiskey/coke, watching the silhouettes of Monument Valley and listening to music. I returned to the same point for what was a cloudy sunrise but completely on my own meaning could set my tripod up on timer for the right shot.
An easy two hour drive away was Page Arizona but with no available camping, the wind being over 30mph and in dire need of a shower I changed my plans around. Within minutes I had cancelled the £130 Upper Antelope Canyon Tour for the following day and instead joined one at the £30 Antelope Canyon X there and then with far fewer people, more personal guides and a generally more relaxing time- the world's most famous slot canyon area with narrow red sandstone walls and light that constantly changes. After, I went to the busy and windswept Horseshoe Bend with people from the tour and drove to Flagstaff, where called ahead to the Grand Canyon Hostel to get their last available dorm bed! Nice how things go from being a bit s*** to great so quickly.
I had never thought of visiting Flagstaff but was so glad I did and is somewhere, if I was American, could totally see myself spending lots of time in- it helped the hostel was very central and up there with the best have seen in this country so could get my bearing's, feel cleaner and chill. With only an evening to enjoy the place (and being a Friday) and being cooler I put jeans on and went out to the Beaver Street Brewery for a flight of OK beer then walked about the small center stopping at a couple of fun bars but ultimately I felt lonely and went home earlier than usual.
The shortest journey on my whole trip was the one hour to Sedona and as had the morning free decided to go up a nearby hill to the Lowell Observatory where looked closely at the sun through a telescope and saw the building's/observatories used to discover Pluto (and hear about how it is now not technically a planet) and other objects in the universe. As a sunny weekend at the end of Spring getting into increasingly popular Sedona was difficult to say the least and was happy to reach Jim & Ann's house away from the mayhem. We went for a short hike around Thunder Mt. (views out over the red canyons and buttes) then played Hacky Sack in the street and ate a nice vegetarian meal, followed by a double movie night of Black Panther and Red Sparrow.
I had a couple more days in Sedona in which I participated in a meditation, played a full round of golf, stayed at a Hilton Resort with my friend Dori (free on points), did the longer Broken Arrow Hike and was able to take her bright yellow Jeep Rubicon 4x4ing on a 10 mile trail high up above the valley before following her the 2 hours South to the 6th largest city in the USA- Phoenix.
I stayed in the city for a full 4 days not doing an awful lot as wanted to rest and prepare for the Brennan family to arrive and take over the car for our National Park trip. I lay in the pool, organised all my things, cleaned the Kia inside & out (had to be done before 10am as by then too hot) and caught up with things online/to do with the rally.
When Dori wasn't working we tried to see the best parts of Phoenix but being 500 square miles, the surrounding mountauins making it a baking hot cauldron and traffic at all hours of the day we were limited. I saw downtown, drove up to a 360 view, ate at local joints, sweated at the Botanical Gardens and of course had time for some breweries, in particular 8-Bit, which is a new family run place that is completely geared around 80's computer games- the beer was unforgettable in both strength and flavour!
Just prior to me leaving Dori showed me around the Airport Fire Department, where she works, and her co- worker amazingly offered to take me out in one of the huge 50 tonne fire trucks and so went all over Phoenix International Airport at nearly 70mph seeing all the high tec stuff, the planes taxiing to and from the runway and how powerful the hose was at the front.
Having wrote and posted far more than anticipated there will be one last part to this USA blog that covers the big National Parks, Wyoming, Denver and the drive back East...stay tuned.