USA - SEPTEMBER 2002
On the way out of Flagstaff, it was hard to forget about the drought down here in the south-west USA in the summer of 2002. Everywhere there were notices warning of the danger of fire, and it wasn't long before I saw for myself first-hand the grim evidence of a tragedy.
My friend Nicole had over the summer months been sending me up-to-date bulletins of the latest forest fires, and they all seemed to be along the route I was taking, yet it wasn't until just a few miles northwest of Flagstaff that I came across the remains of one such fire. I don't know how long the fire had passed (weeks by the look of things) but the smell - even then - was awful.
So stick a few more miles under the belt and it would be coffee time (it was always coffee time, not that the coffee was worth drinking compared to European coffee, that is) and fuel time. The small town of Valle, about 50 miles north of Flagstaff, looked to be the right kind of place to stop.
Now it was as just as well that it was out of season for the Grand Canyon traffic as there was this enormous queue whilst they resurfaced the road. So I took the short cut into the petrol station.
PLANES OF FAME
And over the road was a small airfield that housed the "Planes of Fame" museum here at Valle, Arizona.
I knew what this plane was. A Lockheed Constellation. The Connie was the first of the modern airliners built after the war, and the first aircraft that in my opinion truly started to bring long-distance air travel into the reach of the everyday man, despite whatever Boeing will claim about the 707.
As an aside, the reason why it had a triple-fin tail was because if it were to have one traditional tail, it would have been too high to fit into any conventional aircraft hangar of the time
The claim to fame that this particular plane has is that it was used as the transport aeroplane of General MacArthur. Presumably it was the same plane in which he flew return to the battlefields of Korea after a high-level briefing, a flight that was forever immortalised in the legendary newspaper headline "MacArthur Flies Back To Front".
There were a few other planes here too from a byegone age - several first-generation jets from the late forties and fifties as well as a couple of more modern ones.
I'm not going to pretend I know what they are because modern aviation isn't my thing, so if you can identify any of them, please and you'll have the pleasure of seeing your name in lights.
I reckon that the Russian plane is a Mig 15 and i've no idea what that is doing here. It may have been captured in either Korea or Vietnam and repainted with Russian markings. Its presence here may not be unconnected with the fact that Area 51 is just up the road at Groom Lake, and they got up to all kinds of weird things during the Cold War. I reckon it's too old to have been "liberated" following the fall of the Berlin Wall.
There's lots more stuff under cover, and it's possible to go in for a look round if you have the time. I hadn't, unfortunately. I'll just have to come back here again.
But I'm having second thoughts, seeing as the museum isn't serious about its exhibits. Some official publication describes one of its aircraft as a Messerschmitt ME109 "Gustov". Yet the design was by the Messerschmitt company's predecessor, the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke, so the correct designation is BF109.
Furthermore, it's not a "Gustov", it's a "Gustav". They are obviously making a Freudian slip and confusing themselves with the "Wilhelm Gustlov", a ship carrying an enormous number of civilians that was torpedoed by the Russians in January 1945, with no outcry at all from the British and Americans - in direct contrast to the hysteria they had managed to whip up in respect of the German sinking of the Lusitania and the Athenia.
Another case of history always being written by the victors.
As you know, I'm not in the least bit touristy (I worked too long in the tourist industry for that!) but you can't come and put yourself only 90 miles from one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World, and not pay it a visit, even though you know it's going to be schmuck.
And so I arrived at the entrance to the Canyon - well, not the entrance to the Canyon but the paybooth to allow you to drive to the entrance to the Canyon.
"Yes, of course you have to pay. Where did you think you were? The Land of the Free?"
So "How much is it for me and the Mustang?"
"$20 per car, sir"
"Jeezus! How much is it if I had six people with me in the car?"
"Still $20, sir. You pay by the car!"
"Yes sir, but the pass is valid for 7 days"
"In seven days, I'll be in Europe! I'm only passing through!"
"I'm sorry, sir - it's still $20"
Now, I was quite prepared to pay to enter the park, but $20? Yes, welcome to America, the Land of the Expensive.
And if you think that that is something, you just wait until we get to Little Big Horn a few years later
Once inside the park, you have no alternative but to park up your car in a car park. The roads along the Canyon edge to the west (claimed to be the most spectacular views) are strictly forbidden to private vehicles under any circumstances - except if you had a "differently-abled" permit.
The brochure for the "Grand Canyon" states quite clearly that "we are dealing with a fragile ecosystem and it is in all our interests to limit the problems of pollution. For this reason we are limiting the access of the Park by private vehicles" (or something like that).
So you either take a mule (if you're "going down") or a bus (if you're "going along").
Now the Grand Canyon brochure goes on to state "(we are) instead operating a system of public transport, many of which are fuelled by alternative means"
This bus is obviously fuelled by coal dust!
And before you laugh, Diesel did actually develop an engine that would run on coal dust!
So with top marks for the thought, but zero marks for the deed - I mean, mules devastate the lanscape and emit tons of methane, and the "alternatively-fuelled" buses don't look like they've had an emissions test for a hundred years - you make your choice and off you go.
I took the bus, yet you can see that many others took the mule.
But don't think that walking down to the bottom of the Canyon (no matter how attractive or romantic it seems) is a realistic option for most people. For a start it's almost straight down, which means that it's straight back up again afterwards!
Because of the effects of the Canyon walls concentrating the heat, it's like being in a furnace, and there's little water so you need to take your own - about a gallon per day. Then you need your food (and plenty of it when you consider the energy you spend), and shelter because it'll take you more than one day.
Remember, it's a 4-mile walk to the bottom, then a 4-mile climb out which is the equivalent of climbing a mountain of about 10,000 feet from mean sea level. Would you do that on a whim without the correct gear, in the kind of temperatures you are likely to encounter at the bottom of the canyon?
But some good things about the bus are that you just hop on and hop off where the fancy takes you, and they are free.
The fare is part of the entrance fee to the park (so a family of 4 staying for a week get a bargain!). They do in fact have a couple of modern gas-powered buses too, although for some reason I forgot to photograph any. I suppose I was too busy photographing the view.
You DO really need to be mobile here, because what you see at the information centre, whilst pretty impressive, as you can see from the photographs above, is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING like what you see further down the road.
You can make your own mind up from the following few photos.
Ordinarily, I would have gone everywhere on foot. That's the usual procedure anyway, but I just didn't have the time today to go everywhere by foot, as you can imagine.
There are however regular bus stops every mile or so, and when you hop out, there's always a brief description of what you can see when you walk to the edge. There's usually some quite good viewing platforms too where it's possible to install them.
With not having much time to waste, I had to be selective but I was still able to see some spectacular views from up here.
One of the most spectacular sights to see was where the river (the Colorado River, in case you've forgotten) flows through the Canyon. It looks so calm and peaceful from up here, but when you read the report of John Wesley Powell's "excursions" in a small boat over 130 years ago, you realise what a raging torrent it really is.
But "magnificent" "awesome" "splendid" "Wonder of the Natural World", as it undoubtedly is, I really expected something more. But I don't know what.
Of course, not that this is of great interest to most people, but it's certainly of interest to me. This coach is an "Alliance" by "Freightliner".
Having spent 13 years of my life driving Volvo-engined Van Hools and Scania-engined Jonckheeres around Europe, and then coming over to North America and seeing nothing but Volvo-engined Van Hools and Scania-engined Jonckheeres, it makes a really pleasant change to see a real North American coach. Yes, cut my veins and it's diesel (although these days it's biodiesel) that comes out!
So that was that! Time to move on.
The plan from here on was to follow the Little Colorado River east to Cameron, then take Highway 89 northwards as far as Page on the Utah border. This was the biggest town in the area going north, and I reckoned I could find some reasonable accommodation there and have an opportunity to look at the controversial Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell.
So here on the left you can see a bridge from the I89, but I've no idea what bridge it is. It looks too modern to be an "old" bridge, yet the steepness of the left bank of the river would seem to preclude it being a railway bridge.
The photo on the right, though, is easier. This is the iron suspension bridge that was built here in 1911, presumably at the start of the motor car era. It remained in use as a road bridge until 1958 when it was adapted to carry pipelines over the river, presumably when the new bridge was built. The suspension is supposed to be just over 200 feet long.
So on the way up the Page I had to do a "U" turn and go back to take these next two photographs. Even in the failing light the colours were just so spectacular. This was the start of the area known as "Echo Cliffs".
But it was also part of the Navajo reservation (or Navajo nation) and you can really appreciate the poverty around here just by looking at photos of how poor the soil is. I suppose the only reason it's a native-American exclusive area is because no-one else wants to live here
A short distance further on (by which time the light had completely gone) at Bitter Springs, the road did a really spectacular series of tight bends and a stunning climb up the side of a mountain. From what I could see from the lights in the distance, the view would be really spectacular in the daylight. This is another dot on the map of places to revisit.
Page is a modern town built in the 1950s to house the workers building the Glen Canyon dam. There's also a big coal-fired power station somewhere round here too, but I managed to avoid that.
The town itself is situated in a "U" off the main highway and gave me the impression of one of those out-of-the-way places that nobody ever visits and everyone else has forgotten.
I found myself a cheap motel at (I think) $29 which wasn't too bad. It was even safe to use the shower, which was quite welcome after last night, I can tell you.
However, as per usual, small town America, I decide I'm hungry just as it's 9.00 at night. There was quite an assortment of carniverous restaurants (I realise now that this should read "restaurants for carnivores" but it's too late - I've written it now!) but it was also too late for the restaurants too - even the ones that were full of clients and which wouldn't make an effort to make an extra pizza without cheese.
This restaurant made me laugh. Now I (and most people) know what "Stromboli" is - it's a volcano off the coast of Italy, but I haven't a clue what "Strombolli" is! Later research showed that he was a character in Disney's version of "Pinocchio". But isn't this just like the USA - name a restaurant after a Disney character rather than a geographical feature in another country.
Another point of interest concerning this restaurant was that the "genuine Italian cuisine" seems to have been left in the hands of a couple of native Americans. This surprised me. Being brought up not too far away from Stoke on Trent, with its Pakistani refugees from Mirpur and the Azad Kashmir, I was hoping for an Indian Restaurant around here. This would really be currying favour with the natives. I'll say.
So intransigent restaurants meant a search around for food. I eventually found a petrol station with attached pizzeria that was just on the point of closing (well, by now it was 10 o'clock). Consequently they were only too happy to make me a pizza without cheese. And they tipped on all the vegetarian toppings they had left, and still only charged me for a "basic". Yes, I like the USA.
Whilst I was waiting, I was talking to the girl in charge. She admitted being really unhappy here and couldn't wait to return home - to Boise, Idaho. She'd come here on some sort of backpacking holiday and got stuck.
"Well, from what I've heard, Boise isn't all that much to write home about"
"Well, compared to here, it's almost throbbing" she retorted, with a surprising amount of feeling.
So back I went to my motel, past the local police patrol the members of which were dealing, in a ... shall we say "intensive"?... manner with the occupants of a couple of "bigfoot" pickups.
Yes, Page seemed to be a right place to end up, that's for sure.
Next morning I went food shopping. I'd been thinking, whilst I was eating my pizza, that as far as a "healthy diet" was going, I was falling way behind, and for me a healthy diet is important. This area of the USA has quite a few "Safeway" stores very much like the British version (but needless to say the items on display were quite different. I mean, who in the UK would be buying "nutter butter"?) so I decided that I would buy everything at Safeway's for a few days' worth of really healthy breakfasts. Then, what with lunch (usually a vegetable 12 inch from a Subway) I'd be doing okay for food and for evening, well I could make do with what I could find and still be okay.
I stocked up with healthy fruit energy bread, tins of fruit in fruit juice, soya dessert, lactose-free yoghurt and multivitamin drink - and not to mention grapes by the ton. All in an insulated plastic bag with a washer bottle tube running out of the aircon vent. Now I had a small fridge.
Interestingly, the opening hours of Safeway here were from 05.00 until midday. That was strange. According to the sales assistant, those bizarre hours are for the benefit of the tourists. Even now, I'm still trying to work that one out.
There is, in Page, a little museum dedicated to John Wesley Powell. He was the man famous for being the first to lead a party down the Colorado River in boats in 1869, and he did the journey again in 1871.
You could be forgiven in thinking that the boat in the photograph is an original - but you're wrong. It's a boat actually made by Disney (come on, you're in the States - what on earth were you thinking of!) for a film of the expedition, called "10 Who Dared".
Interestingly enough, the museum itself admits that the boat isn't an exact replica - it's oversized.
This of course leads on to the next thought - "if they knew that this boat is oversized, then surely they must know the real dimensions".
This itself leads to the next question, which is "why then show something that is historically inaccurate? This is a museum to John Wesley Powell - not to Disney!"
But we Europeans forget so easily - the whole of America is just one big museum to Disney. History never happened unless Disney filmed it. The Strombolli Pizzeria should have given me a clue.
And if there are two versions of an event - the version known and recorded by 96% of the world's population, and a different version filmed by Disney, which one do Americans believe? And it's not like this is the only place that this has happened, either. I've encountered this attitude somewhere else as well.
And remembering that this is a museum to a man and his companions who bravely went by rowing boat down the Colorado River, the irony of someone using the museum to sell a pair of jetskis has just totally gone completely over their heads.
Yes, for some unknown reason I was in a bad mood this morning. It seems to happen quite often and often spontaneously, but at least I can recognise it and do my best to cope.
THE GLEN CANYON DAM
"So, Eric - what's eating you about Page?"
Well, it wasn't so much Page but the whole Glen Canyon area.
For example, here we are standing by a dam that's flooded an area bigger than the Grand Canyon just down the road. It's 180 miles long and took me (and you know I don't hang about) a day and a half to drive around it on the highways! You only have to look at the bits you can see to realise how magnificent this must have been before some bureaucrat decided to flood it.
However I suppose they could be excused if they were planning to help out the local community or whatever, but do the electricity and water go to the local area?
Do they heck!
They go to Phoenix and Tucson, two of the fastest-growing cities in the USA.
These cities are full of the retired businessman and entrepreneurs from the cold North-East who have moved down to the warm south-west for a twilight life of bliss and contentment.
However, as any fule no, there's a water problem and a power problem down in the south-west, and it's been solved by these retired businessmen and entrepreneurs. They spent their whole working lives ripping off people all over the world in order to make their pile. Now in their retirement, they are ripping off the local inhabitants of northern Arizona and stealing their water and potential electricity in order to water their lawns and power their airconditioning.
Now if you have a look at these photos, you'll see some green grass. And believe me, this area certainly does need some greenery. I don't think I've ever seen any inhabited area so barren in my whole life as the Arizona / Utah frontier area.
And yet I noticed on my drive up here from the Grand Canyon that there are hundreds of poor farmers and native Americans trying their best to eke out a living from some of the poorest soil in the world.
Given the above, you would think that this irrigation is being used to aid the poor farmer (who actually lives in the area from where the water comes) to grow some crops and improve his livelihood.
Unfortunately that isn't the case. This is something that I can't grasp about the American mentality - it's okay to provide water for golf courses and hotel lawns, and electricity for airconditioning for the rich, yet for the poor who have no alternative except to stay put because they don't have the wherewithal to move to Phoenix or to a 5-star hotel or to go to play golf - then that's tough.
Then as for food, America isn't interested in growing its own food, but to trade (often on loaded terms) with impoverished third-worlders in exchange for burgers, arms and other western delights which they don't really need, and in the meantime the local third-worlders are exploited, their bio-diversity is threatened, and the monoculture puts their health at risk. Meantime, they still have no money to buy burgers and so on. And if you think that this is bad, then this is even worse.
Now I put my points about the local water to an official at the visitor centre and asked for an explanation or statement, and guess what?
No explanation, no statement, I was asked to leave.
So much for free speech. It seems that freedom of speech is only okay if you agree with the American viewpoint.
If the USA has the highest average standard of living in the world, then there must be some pretty rich people hiding out somewhere, because I am seeing some really poor ones on my travels. No-one from abroad would believe that there are people so poor in the USA. It's worse than Zimbabwe.
So I was sitting in the car in the car park sulking, plotting my course for the rest of the day on my map and listening to some Curved Air. A big pickup pulled up next to me and a family got out. They listened to the music for a minute and the guy turned to his wife and said "Well that sure as hell isn't Country and Western!"
Yes, I was really in a bad mood this morning. I was glad to get away.