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.