Monthly Archives: April 2014

Deserts deserts everywhere

Image

I’m skipping over last weekend as we are returning to the same place this weekend in Mesa, Arizona to stay with friends so will fill in on the whole Mesa section next week… that also, rather handily, catches me up to the hear and now. Funnily enough, almost all of the places I’ll tell you about now are not firsts for me… I did a similar trip in the South West in 1992 with my parents and siblings, I was 11 years old. The places haven’t changed in the slightest but my eyes and I certainly have!

On Sunday we headed to Flagstaff, ate Mexican food (rapidly becoming our mainstay cuisine) and checked into a place with a pool as the kids have been desperate for a swim for days now. Flagstaff is a cool place! Friendly people, great atmosphere, funky shops and views of snow capped mountains amid the wild west heat. But most of all Flagstaff has the Lowell Observatory. And the staff at the Lowell Observatory who are not only knowledgeable but capable of infusing you with their knowledge on a palatable level. Delightfully quirky and odd enough to satisfy ones desire to mingle occasionally with proper, intelligent scientist… Always an interesting, humbling and highly amusing experience for average folk like us.

On Monday we went first in the morning for a talk on the history and to learn about the discovery of Pluto. We were able to view the sun through a telescope with a special filter on and we could see the flares and spots. After a chilled out afternoon we returned to the Observatory for the evening events. A talk on our solar system and galaxy, an incredible up close look at the moon and the chance to view Jupiter through their scopes. An experience we hadn’t anticipated or ever even realised was an experience to be experienced was the watching of the Earth’s shadow rise in the East as the sun sets in the West.

The astronomer who talked us through this visual spectacle also knew plenty about the geology of the area and was able to tell us about the volcanoes that had created the landscape we were witnessing and explained how the rocks the boys were playing with on the floor (Earth shadow not being quite as interesting to them) was actually the same sort of rock as on the dark patches on the moon we had just looked at in the big telescope – how cool is that?!

On Tuesday we drove to the Grand Canyon. You’ve all seen pictures of the Grand Canyon but unless you see it for real it is near on impossible to imagine or describe the sheer vastness and beauty of the ancient and unique wonder of the world. It’s quite touristy though and I was glad not to be there at the height of summer.

After that we drove… and we drove… through painted deserts and the most incredible rock formations. It took hours and with zero reception or 4G on our phones we had no idea how far was left. Hoping to reach the four corners and find lodgings we stopped about 30 minutes west of our goal and asked in a shop (A random one by the road still open yet the first sign of life we had passed for maybe an hour) if there were lodgings where we were headed. And lucky we did! No, there was nothing that way for maybe an hour or more. We should head north to Bluff (a name which didn’t instil confidence in us at that time of night, particularly as it didn’t even show up on my phone’s map… local enjoyment back home of Porthemmet sprung to mind.

Thankfully Bluff existed and although both our lodgings and organic breakfast were somewhat over priced it was a nice place with clear artistic hippy appeal. The people were friendly and there was an infectious buzz around the tiny place in the middle of the desert. After our expensive but healthy breakfast we set off for Monument Valley, having taken the very sensible decision to give up on the four corners for now. Writing this now it seems incredible that it was just this morning – we cover such vast distances and our days are so long they seem to merge together, sleeps seem like naps and we’re off again.

Our car was wholly unsuitable for the full 17 miles of off road experience across the valley. A 4X4 is required and we didn’t fancy paying for the tours available for this – we have decided to save paid tours for wildlife specific experiences. The trading post and visitor centre is excellent though and I acquired a cowboy hat, photo to follow I promise.

Lunch was in a Navajo café in the next town along the highway. We picked well amongst the Macdonalds and Taco Bells, finding just about the only independent place still open in town. Sitting down to look at the options we were approached by the native American couple at the next table offering us a trade – our cute young boys for their teen age girl. We were tempted but alas they were joking. Ensued a conversation about where we were from and the hill they live on (I say hill… they pointed to it… I mean sheer cliff in the middle of the desert) and the sheep they graze on common tribal land. They recommended the best local dishes of fried bread with beef and mutton which we went with having glanced around the room to see that literally everyone was eating it too. We all shook hands and said goodbye… well, we all shook hands except Patrick, who in attempting a high five actually just chucked his massive glass of water across the room. The food was genuine and delicious.

And again we drove… and drove, weaving back and forth between Arizona and Utah. Just as you think the desert is so vast you can’t imagine it ending, so you’re starting to feel the reverse of claustrophobia from earth curvature views and skies broken only by occasional man made aeroplane trails – the only modern intrusion in this untouched scene – just as you wonder “how much further can this possibly continue”, despite the diversity of colour and rock and sand and plant. Suddenly it ends. Green appears across the sandy ground. Albeit a shrubby dry green. The sand and rock changes colour again to one we’ve not yet seen, a deep red/brown and the horizon is no longer broken by rugged, random and precarious rocks but instead by rolling hills and more gentle protrusions. There are still sharp ledges and sudden gorges, where dried river beds eagerly await the coming rains, but they are softened by the greenness. As I took a turn driving so Rob could have his daily nap I saw a cow licking a new born calf, always a magical sight.

It’s so late now, we are in a town called Kanab. The children are asleep and we need to get up early tomorrow to set off to Bryce Canyon before a particular road closes and blocks our route until lunchtime. I haven’t got time to transfer photos to the computer and process them for this post but tomorrow night I’ll do a photo post for you of the last few days.  

From East to West – The Road Trip Days, Part 2

Image

Oklahoma to Mesa via Santa fe

Image

The following morning seemed to drag also, due to various mishaps such as muffin mushed into carpet and painful splinters in feet requiring two man extraction. Plus the traffic around Oklahoma slowed down our pace. But our plan for the day was to drive… and drive we did. We detoured from the interstate at Elk City to drive across the Black Kettle National Grassland. Now these were country roads… Big skies, long empty roads and stunning views stretching for miles and miles.

Image

Open views for miles and miles

By the afternoon the sky had interesting clouds though and we were mystified by the strange mists rolling around us blocking the views… Suddenly the “clouds” closed in and smelled of smoke… we were headed straight for a wild fire. The winds were picking up and an email arrived from a friend warning us of the tornadoes building in the area. Now quite honestly I’m all for a bit of excitement and extreme weather and were I not with my three small children and beloved husband I would be well up for sticking around in the thick of the action… but with our parental instincts kicking in with full force we were driving on adrenaline to get the hell out of there!

Image

The smoke was closing in and getting thick

A sheriff come in the opposite direction and turned us around away from the fire. Following her directions to safety we relaxed until the moment the wind made a dramatic change in direction, the smoke thickened and we realised this way was even worse… so did everyone else and trucks, cars and bikes started turning around as three fire engines with gas masked men on the front wizzed past, lights flashing and sirens blaring.

Image

The fire engines had wizzed past and we decided to head the other way

Detouring again down dirt tracks we managed to put some distance between us and the smoke and finally came across a small town with a Subway for some sandwiches, as our picnic plans were somewhat scuppered by the extreme weather. From the car to the door was treacherous with strong winds which nearly picked feather light Patrick off the floor. We ate and we drove… and we put as much distance as we could between our children and the dangers we simply aren’t accustomed to.

Image

We put some distance between us and the fire as quick as we could!

A beautiful sunset and clear interstate got us to New Mexico and we stopped for the night at Santa Rosa, transferring sleeping babies straight to their beds. Far more efficiently we rose, had a quick breakfast and hit the road, making it to Santa fe by mid-morning for a fantastic brunch. Santa fe is an interesting place. It’s hard to remember you’re still in America feeling far more Spanish/Mexican. Stunning art and crafts line the streets and the wealth of the area seems to seep through the side walks adding glamour to your steps.

Image

Santa fe is a beautiful city. Even the drive to get there is stunning with the snow capped mountains of New Mexico towering over the desert

A city for hippies and artists we didn’t spend long with the children but is definitely on my list of places to return to in the future with adult only company. It’s beautiful, romantic and exciting. After the delicious food we wandered back to the car peering into the pricey shop windows wowing at the cowboy boots and massive diamonds and set off again to reach Mesa by nightfall. It was a long drive but it was fun and we made another detour once we reached Arizona.

Image

The Painted Desert within the Petrified Forest National Park. The colours are from various geological periods with gaps from erosion between vast time frames.

The Petrified Forest National Park, an incredible desert landscape with fascinating geology spanning almost unfathomable periods of time and littered with trees so old they have turned to stone. It’s hard to get your head around the process of wood being changed into stone and yet retaining it’s fine detail, character and appearance. More than just retaining such detail it is enhanced with vibrant crystal colours and a texture which is difficult to process when your eyes see trees but your fingers feel rocks. It’s hard to picture the forest that once was in this barren, Mars like landscape but the evidence is there, fossilised and palatable and so real to the naked eye and fingers.

Image

The Petrified Forest National Park… fossils like you’ve never seen before.

The kids have been great, looking out and discussing the landscape. Although there have been plenty of rows over toy guns and catapults, goodness knows how many toilet stops and far more hours watching films then I would ever have thought I would allow. Rob and I have been listening to the audio-book of The Earth Abides, at the start of which he completes the same road trip in reverse – it’s passed many hours and complemented the landscape with apocalyptic loneliness we both love to imagine.

Image

From East to West – The Road Trip Days, Part 1

Image

Memphis to Oklahoma

From New Orleans in Louisiana to Mesa, Arizona with various detours has taken us about 2,500 miles across this vast continent. Very little time has been spare for such matters as blogging so I’ve got rather a lot to fill you in with now, from my room in Flagstaff while the other four members of Team Dean sleep quietly around me.

We bounced into Memphis and it was sooo cool! Sadly the Civil Rights Museum was just closing when we arrived but they have a fantastic interpretation display outside the incredibly persevered Lorraine Motel, where Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated. It’s a truly humbling experience and we used it as an opportunity to discuss race issues and inequality with Alfie… a little beyond him I know but good to introduce young in my view… lest we forget.

Image

Standing in front of the Lorraine Motel is a humbling experience. An opportunity to reflect on our history, mistakes and hope for the future.

If you’re going to visit Graceland then check into the Days Inn across the street. It’s cheap and totally what you would expect from a hotel next door to Elvis’ place. With a guitar shaped pool and tacky memorabilia everywhere you get the chance to meet all the other real life pilgrims making their way to this iconic, bordering on ironic, place.

Image

The guitar pool at Days Inn, Memphis. It was freezing but Alfie braved it and jumped in.

Graceland is unexplainable and quite honestly I don’t want to attempt it as you need to visit this place for yourself. We aren’t particular fans of Elvis, which admittedly resulted in us feeling somewhat like frauds or fakes amongst the silver haired worshippers, who needed to don their reading glasses every time we changed the number on our audio tour gadgets. The children were under stricked instructions not to ask who Elvis was whilst there. We had tested them repeatedly with the various Elvis pictures in the hotel room the night before but alas, by the morning they had forgotten and we were nervous of being caught out as intruders.

Image

Graceland, surprisingly understated and homely.

Graceland tickets

Tickets to Graceland… keepers for the scrap book!

It really didn’t matter though. That place is spectacular! The house is uber cool with it’s mirrored ceilinged TV room, the Jungle room and the humble kitchen and sitting room. It’s a home. And it’s a reflection of the man, undoubtedly an interesting character regardless of personal favour for his music. If you do find yourself making the journey one day then definitely get the ticket to the aeroplane and car museum too… They were so fun. His private jet, bigger than many a house with it’s bedroom, dinning room, bathrooms, sitting rooms, all complete with gold plated seat belt buckles is like a dream, it doesn’t seem real, except you can walk through it and touch it and it is real. The car museum is a super fun time machine housing the most spectacular vintage vehicles from pink Cadillacs to toy snow mobiles altered to run on grass, Ferrari’s to a John Deere tractor – That man enjoyed his toys!

Graceland

Inside Graceland

Elvis cars and plane

Elvis’s toys. His plane, Lisa-Marie and a few of his cars

We had really hoped to visit the Sun Studios but sadly children under 6 aren’t allowed in so it was off the agenda for us and by lunchtime we were crossing the Mississippi into Arkansas. A quick flick through the Rough Guide I’m increasingly relying on these days and we were detouring off the interstate down to a town called Hot Springs to visit the Fordyce Bathhouse, a Victorian spa. It was pretty fascinating to see the old tubs and it’s been impressively persevered. The town was a quirky place, long past it’s hey day when the rich and famous flocked there for it’s waters. It reminded me very much of Matlock Baths in Derbyshire, in as much as it was a Victorian holiday town struggling to maintain it’s tourism, encouraging the motorcyclists and hippies who naturally came for it’s surrounding beauty… I liked it! I didn’t like the revolting meal we attempted to eat at a little café there, ergh… shudder. That’s the last time I order Gumbo outside of New Orleans!

Image

The gym at the spa reminded me of my days at a convent school with much of the same Victorian equipment, probably still in use now!

We decided to press on after dinner and drive as far as we could. With a film on for the kids and full tummies we made it past Fort Smith and stopped further down interstate ready for an early start the next day.

The early start didn’t seem to happen quite right though. We got up early enough and realised that we had paid as much for a room with no wifi or breakfast as we had the night before for both plus board – a rookie mistake we won’t make again. I scouted out the gas station opposite for sustainable and to improve the mood of the children but alas it was poor pickings. We packed up and headed for the Interstate, hopeful that the next junction or so would offer more appealing options. It did. We found a fantastic little diner, kitted out in true Route 66 funky glory… and then waited for what seemed like forever for the chef to cook a couple of eggs and some slices of toast! Man it took ages… by the time we set off again it was mid morning and we felt frustrated, vowing only to stay places where breakfast can be swiftly dealt with in our own time frame.

Image

No breakfast served here!

Pressing on to Wednesday’s detour we headed North of the interstate, now in the state of Oklahoma. This beautiful dive took us closer to the Great Plains and we arrived at Woolaroc after lunch. There was a fun play park for the kids to burn some energy and there was what must surely be the most impressive museum and art gallery in this region of the States. The paintings and sculptures were utterly captivating and despite Patrick’s best efforts to ruin this little excursion (I’m sure they have an organised rota for their turns at being utter monsters) Alfie, Rob and I learned lots about the Native American history in the region from the fascinating artefacts and accompanying interpretation. If you are even vaguely near this place then detour to it.

Artefacts from Woolaroc

From top left, An Indian headdress, Stone axes, a fire drill and shrunken heads – warrior trophies!

We left after ice lollies and pressed South again to the interstate, stopping my a creek to get the kids into pyjama’s and making a cup of tea on the stove so as to drive on later and make some miles up around Oklahoma City. We made it to the edge of the city to a room with Wifi and breakfast. I did a couple of hours of work and slept well.

Image

Sugar Slaves, Swamps and Coca Cola

Image

“She had the idea that, as slaves were expensive, she would grow her own. She went to the market and bought five men and twenty women. Within ten years she had her first crop of young slaves.”

“If their daughter was to run the plantation as it’s president then she must be talented, accomplished and above all, beautiful. When she was 15 years old she broke out in acne. Distraught, her mother found out about a ground breaking new treatment in Paris for acne and so they sent their young daughter over seas to receive it. The marvellous French doctor injected her with the wondrous treatment – whatever it was – the single dose killed her”.

The Laura Plantation had a powerful impact on me… I’m still digesting and trying to manage my frustration and anger that in the last two hundred or so years we really haven’t progressed enough. The first story may not be common place these days although it still happens, it is thankfully considered abominable by all but the very worst sort of humans imaginable… but the later, well, it’s more common now than ever. It’s bordering on the norm in first world countries and is actively encouraged by most facets of society. Anyway, not wishing to linger on such odious topics I shall move on.

Image

The Creole House at the Laura Plantation

The following day we had booked a swamp tour with Pearl River Eco Tours on their 6 man boat. Despite Orla’s impressive effort to absolutely ruin it we had an incredible time. Up close with alligators we had a wonderfully knowledgeable Cajun guide whose love and passion for the Louisiana swamps was both infectious and satisfying. I had hoped for better pictures but am actually very happy with these knowing full well how hard it was to take them. Not just in a swaying boat but one handed while my legs engulfed Orla, preventing her determined attempts to dive into the alligator infested waters and my other hand was continuously stuffing snacks into her unbelievably loud and aggressive mouth – jaws like a snapping turtle I swear!

Image

An alligator silently moving through the water

Image

Image

A monster of an alligator lurking in a pond. They are so well camouflaged it’s amazing.

Image

A little warbler in the swamp

This boat was carried 20 miles by hurricane Katrina before being deposited here where is it now home to a host of turtles, birds and other inhabitants. The swamps are so beautiful, peaceful and intriguing habitats. I’ve never been in a swamp before but I definitely want to explore more of them, and in greater depth in the future.

Image

The power of Katrina, this boat was brought to rest from 20 miles away!

Image

The swamp. An oozingly beautiful and ancient habitat with thousand year old trees dripping in lichen. Utterly still and peaceful, luckily this was the one part of the tour Orla was quiet and calm for… I’m grateful for that.

After the swamp tour and an incredible Cajun feast nearby we pressed northward again. I rapidly got bored of the interstate and frustrated that we were probably missing out on far more interesting places on the slower roads running parallel. So we detoured and ended up in the wonderful town of Vicksburg. Not only does it boast an incredible position towering over the Mississippi River but the result of it’s position means it has a rich history of Civil War battles. The old part of the town has been beautifully preserved and strolling along the sun warmed streets infused with jazz music from secret flowerbed speakers we decided interstate detours are going to be an essential part of our planning from now on!

Image

It’s seat above the Mighty Mississippi

Image

Interesting architecture in Vicksburg makes for a beautiful historic town

Image

The classic American façade.

The next morning we visited the Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum where the world best known brand was first bottled. Being the mean sort of parents that we are two of our three children had never tried Coke before and Alfie only had when he went out with someone else’s parents and got bought some! So we decided that it was time they tried some of the iconic tonic – plus we wanted some and it seemed a little too unfair not to let them have some too. Rob and I tried the original sugar cane type and the kids got the modern syrup made sort.

Image

Coca Cola was first bottled in Vicksburg in 1894

Image

You got to get a bottle of Coke after looking around the museum… it would be wrong not to!

Image

Patrick trying his first bottle of Coca-Cola

Orla polished off the bottle, Patrick had most of one until a burp came out his nose, made his eyes water and shocked him into a strange fear of the fizz, and Alfie enjoyed the first few swigs but like his mother isn’t much of a soda pop fan anyway – we both passed ours over to Rob to finish off and we all burped our way back to the car for the next leg of the Journey… bouncing our way into Graceland, Graceland, Memphis Tennessee… Poor boys and pilgrims and families (that’s us), we’re all going to Graceland.

Image