Monday, 31 July 2017
The landscape then reverted to the Martian vistas of the previous day - not even aromatic sagebrush to break up the view.
Yet, if the landscapes weren't too exciting, my fellow travellers made up for it. For a large part of the journey, I found myself accompanied by a group of bikers - at least 25 in front of me, the same number behind.
Each had the regulation beard, sunglasses and bandana, few had helmets, but most had slim, blond female pillion passengers. Most rode in the feet forward, hands high position beloved of bikers ever since Easy Rider. And there was me, in my dusty little Jeep Renegade, somehow in the middle of this.
Things brightened up when I reached one of America's great natural wonders, the Arches National Park.
For reasons I wish I understood (Wikipedia's description is technical and rather confusing), millions of years of erosion have created a landscape of vast towers, columns and arches. The first viewpoint - named Park Avenue because of how the vast columns resemble skyscrapers - was breathtaking.
Every corner I turned presented me with the most incredible view. I took a hundred photos, but I'm sure none will capture the scale of this astonishing place.
The streets were buzzing with German, French and Dutch. Moab is the centre for off-roading, hiking, and - in the winter - skiiing.
I had a delicious lobster curry at a the 'Twisted Sistas' restaurant, and retired early, leaving Moab to party into the night.
Sunday, 30 July 2017
The day started like the day before - back on the Loneliest Road, more sagebrush plateaus and mountain ridges. I took the opportunity to go off the beaten track to visit the Ward Charcoal Kilns.
These brick beehive like structures have a timeless quantity. I could have believed them to be 1,000 year old Indian structures, as easily as kilns from Nevada's recent industrial history (1870). Located up a dusty track, the opportunity to go 'off road' was too tempting. They were in an atmospheric spot, a long way from the main road. Very photogenic too.
A few more plateaus and ridges later, the landscape flattened out. I would hesitate to call it boring, but it was the loneliest the US-50 had been to date, the longest uninhabited stretch. As the Border Inn's sign warned me, it was 83 miles from the Inn to the next services at Delta. 83 very flat miles.
For the first time, I see suburban architecture. Roadside strip malls, fast food, housing estates, and it's clear I'm in the great Salt Lake City metroplex. My stop for the night is Provo. I didn't expect much from this suburb, but it turned out to be a rather pleasant little town in its own right. It had a preserved downtown and a youthful atmosphere thanks to the nearby University.
It wasn't until I went out later that it made me feel a little uneasy - was it too nice? After characterful, but beat up, Bishop, Virginia City and Ely, this town was immaculate. Not a single boarded up shop, not a single bit of litter, not a hair out of place. No baseballs caps, no bearded bikers, aging hippies or tattooed disaffected youth.
The young people here was so clean you could eat off them, and all bought their clothes at Gap. The few older people - responsible parent types - were smartly dressed. I was glad I'd dressed up a bit - fresh, clean jeans, white shirt - because that's how every other man over the age of thirty dressed too. A tie wouldn't have looked out of place.
Dinner was good - modern Navajo it billed itself as, and how often will you get a chance to eat that? It was South Western cuisine with a twist - shrimp with blue corn grits, tacos made with Indian flatbread. All very tasty. On the way back to the hotel I noted that every single one of the happy smiling couples was holding hands. Had aliens replaced the population of Provo? Or was it simply the influence of the Mormons?
I did enjoy the bit of trivia that came with the hotel though. Butch Cassidy used to use it was a safe house - he was friends with the owners at the time - and the current owner was keen to show me the 'actual door' he came through. Butch was also born a Mormon - so not all are squeaky clean!
Saturday, 29 July 2017
I've been describing this as a drive across the desert, but it's not really. According to Wikipedia it's an ecoregion of the temperate coniferous forests biome. And an area of contiguous endorheic watersheds. I'm starting to wish I hadn't asked. But what it's not is a wind blown sandy desert, or a wasteland with cactus plants.
Sometimes I would stop - to read a historical marker, or see the remains of a Pony Express station - and the warm air would be sweet with the smell of sagebrush. This green grey plant is the state flower of Nevada and has a beautiful scent, like a cross between sage, rosemary and mint, that fills the air.
So was the road lonely? No. There were times when I couldn't see a car to either horizon. But you knew that if you were going to meet another vehicle, it would be a lumbering RV dragging its baby car behind it, crawling at 25 mph through the passes. I was also astonished to see the occasional cyclist. You'd have to brave, mad or both to consider this as a sensible cycle ride.
The route itself follows that of the Pony Express and the trans-continental stage coaches. Dotted along the road are ruins - surrounded by Fort Knox style barbed wire fences - of the old stages and stations. I understand the desire to preserve these buildings, but the security was a little off putting.
Austin (population 192) provided me with a much needed coffee and muffin. I also a chance to look at 'Stokes Castle'. A crumbling three story structure built in 1897, used once as a summer home by a mining magnate and left to tumble down ever since.
And from there, into Ely. A population of 4,000 makes it the largest metropolis for hundreds of miles. It has three casinos and the 'Hotel Nevada and Gambling Hall' - which boasts Ingrid Bergman, Gary Cooper, Lyndon B. Johnson and Mickey Rooney among its former guests. Although looking at it, I suggest those days are over.
I stayed at the 'All Aboard Inn', by Ely's train station. I didn't realise until the morning this was still in use - when a steam whistle from their tourist steam train work me up.
So I survived the first section of the Loneliest Road. What will tomorrow bring?
Friday, 28 July 2017
This post comes from the impossibly photogenic Virginia City, up in the mountains of north Nevada ... so, how did I get here?
I left Bishop - after an enormous plate sized pastry at Erick Schat's Dutch Bakery - without expecting much from US-395. The aim of the day was to get north, so I could pick up the 'Loneliest Road', US-50.
Yet again, California conspired to confound me. It threw me a continual, relentless display of the best of the American countryside. Views, vistas, landscapes, one after another.
US-395 might have looked flat on my map, but because it hugs the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada range, it's actually a set of plateaus, separated by ridges.
This gives the effect of a slow motion roller coaster, never knowing what will appear at the top of the next ridge. We'd climb and climb, sometimes as high as 8,000ft, then the next landscape would appear. Sometimes a pine forest, sometimes a shimmering lake, sometimes a bright green alpine meadows dotted with black cows.
By this point, mother nature had tired of showing off and let the humans take over. I crossed the border into Nevada and the dusty suburbs of Carson City. The snow topped peaks of the Sierra Nevada receded into the distance as I climbed up into the yellow hills heading towards Virginia City.
It's a major tourist attraction now. The buildings may say 'hotel', 'fire station' or 'general store', but like Disneyland all the shops are the same within - each selling cowboy gear, salt taffy, armadillos-with-bottles, sepia photos of you and your family, Christmas decorations and Indian jewellery. Unlike Bishop, you couldn't live here - there's no deli, no stores, no book shops or suppliers of household goods. Unless you can live off taffy and beer of course ...
After a enjoyable light and tasty Mexican meal, I yet again find myself preparing for the next day's drive. Another major stage of the trip is behind me - I've left California and the US-395 behind me. Now I have a five hour drive across almost nothing ahead of me, on the Loneliest Road, the emptiest, least populated road in America. I can't wait!
Thursday, 27 July 2017
I've been anticipating some of these for years. Some are blue lines connecting breakfast with lunch, ways of moving the trip forward, and I go into them with no expectations.
Today's drive to Lone Pine was supposed to be nothing more than an hour's drive to get brunch. It turned out to be one of the most exhilarating drives I've ever done.
Like Death Valley, the floor of Panamint is desert, with the road cutting straight across, to the 'town' of Panamint Springs. Think caravan park and petrol stations. It was the only civilisation I would see before arriving at Lone Pine. From there, it was back up into the hills - but this time much tighter curves. Sheer drops one side, cliff faces the other, until I reached the plateau at the top, at 4,250 feet.
From here, I parked the car and took a walk out to Father Crowley Point - a chance to look back into the Panamint Valley and see where I'd come from. It was only 10am, and I'm higher than Ben Nevis, so the temperature was actually quite bearable. The mile walk to the outlook was definitely worth the effort.
Up here I could see the entire valley, with the road only a scratch in the desert below. It was completely silent, the only distraction being an eagle swooping close above me, intrigued by this lone human.
From here it was a short trip to Lone Pine, at the base of Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the USA.
Lone Pine is famous as being the location of almost every single Hollywood Western. It's a short drive from Los Angeles - shorter than Texas or Wyoming - but has everything a filmmaker could need. Deserts, canyons, snow capped mountains.
Almost every B move western from the 1920s onwards was filmed here, plus any other TV show or movie that needed a rugged outdoors - the opening titles to The Lone Ranger, the town terrorised by man eating worms in Tremors (one of my favourite films), the canyon scenes from the original Star Wars ... thousands and thousands of films. And I learned all this at the wonderful Museum of Western Film in Lone Pine!
After Lone Pine, it was a less dramatic drive to Bishop, where I would spend the night. I'm on the US-395, driving through the heart of the 'other California' as it's known here. It's the thin strip on the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, a long long way from the sprawl of Los Angeles. On my left are snow capped mountains, on my right, the older hills that lead back to Death Valley.
I spotted a little micro-brewery on my walks, so went back there later and had a flight of beers (6 quarter-pints, one of each beer they make). All were delicious - and quite strong in the American craft beer style. They washed down a squash and goats cheese pizza (see, I don't only eat burgers here). The night ended with a trip to the local independent cinema, then back to the Motel for more planning.
Tuesday, 25 July 2017
The day started calmly enough in Las Vegas (if Las Vegas is ever calm) when I went to pick up my hire car, a Jeep Renegade. The butch name and wide collection of gadgets (which is what sold it to me) hide the fact it's very much a sheep in wolf's clothing. Related to the new Fiat 500 SUV, it's got a tiny little engine that pulls so slowly I thought it broken at first. But, after 200 trouble free miles across the desert, we've actually bonded. I know to avoid hills and not overtake things.
So, when you're on your way to the hottest, driest place in the world, what do you not expect to be your first problem? That's right, rain! Yet the heavens opened as I left Vegas, and that was a problem. Death Valley is prone to flash floods and road washouts and sometimes closes when the weather is bad. All day I've been trying to outrun an ominous black storm (hard in a Jeep Renegade).
Lunch was in a little town called Shoshone. It was once a railway stop and now survives selling over priced petrol - and tasty burgers - to tourists arriving at the south entrance to the Valley.
When I arrived at Badwater Creek Road ('next services, 72 miles') my worst fears seemed to have come true. Two yellow triangles alongside the road claim 'flooding'. But they didn't say, 'flooding, road closed', so I drove on regardless. The emptiness is awe inspiring - Death Valley National Park is bigger than the state of Delaware, but has a population of near zero. It's obvious why. It's a wasteland, only the green-brown shrubs tell you this isn't the surface of Mars.
I don't know why it surprised that my drive to the USA's lowest point would involve a lot of downhill driving, but it did. The road wound down from 3,200ft to 300ft below sea level (the height of Mount Snowden, to put that in perspective). The valley floor was once the basin of a lake, and all that's left of that body of water are occasional salt flats. Each one gives the mirage like quality of looking like water from a distance. I can ony imagine the frustration of the first settlers passing through here, and why they named it as they did.
Badwater was full of French tourists - and a smattering of Germans. No sensible American would be here er, but many Europeans come, attracted to extremes we don't get at home. To be honest, it's why I was here too.
The heat is unbelievable. The oncoming storm meant a lot of cloud cover, which dropped the temperature to an unusually low 46C (115F). I couldn't imagine what it would have been like in the full force of the sun. What I didn't expect was the wind, strong enough to slam my car door and remove a finger. It tore the moisture out of you, making you gasp for breath. I couldn't imagine ever walking the valley on foot.
After Badwater, you start to get the 'sights' of Death Valley. Artist's Drive is a wonderful winding road that takes you into the canyons that border the lake bed. Full of mineral deposits, the hills are greens and reds and yellows. The road itself is a fantastic drive, single lane, swooping between narrow gorges and roller coasting through river beds like a theme park ride.
I must have upset the gods by doing this, because yet again I flew through the most incredible thunderstorm. So strange seeing lightning from above. The same happened when I flew to Miami last year. It must be my punishment for not driving this part of the route.
I know Las Vegas pretty well, and had no desire to hang around this time. The city continues to bemuse me. There's nowhere in Europe that has a such a single minded desire for a good time. It's like a cross between Blackpool and Disneyland Paris. I'm sure it would make more sense if I gambled, but I know the maths and I've got better things to spend my money on - like dinner! This year I tried the Cosmopolitan's Wicked Spoon Buffet for the first time, and as you'll see below, I loved it.
After that, it was an early night after a double-check of tomorrow's route - Death Valley, here we come ...
Sunday, 23 July 2017
This is part of the annual family ritual. My daughter goes to a summer camp north of here. She's my reason for being here in the first place - and my excuse for this road trip. We always come to the Stockyards - our eighth visit - and the predictability is comforting after the long flight. We always eat at Riscky's, Joe T's, Love Shack, H3. A year without one makes me itchy. We also meet with friends, do some shopping, get me used to driving on the right and generally acclimatise.
When I travel, I like to review everywhere I eat for Google Maps - it's good to give something back. My trips would be so much harder without all the wonderful online resources out there. So to get us started, here's my reviews (copied from Google) for my favourite Stockyards restaurants.
Saturday, 22 July 2017
The germ of the idea dates back to 2014, when I wrote about a fantasy route from Dallas to San Francisco. It was "The Loneliest Road" that first caught my attention - 287 miles of nothing across the north of Nevada. I had to do it.
Because my trip has to start and end in Dallas, I've extended the route to include a few more iconic drives. I'll be exploring the highs and lows of the Southwest. The searing heat of Death Valley to the Million Dollar Highway winding across the mountains of Colorado. I'll also take in US-395 - the back route across California - plus of course, some Route 66.
I'll get a good dose of National Parks - the Arches outside Moab, The National Monument of Colorado and of course, Death Valley. I plan to see Indian Pueblos in Taos and eat 'modern Navajo' in Provo, Utah. I'm going to sleep in a concrete Wigwam and a motel that's not even on the Internet. I don't plan to lose my shirt in Vegas, but I'm definitely going to sample the buffets.
Rather than try - and fail - to write all this up when I get back, I plan to blog daily, and then tidy it up later. So please forgive exuberant grammar and copious typos.
So, without further ado, here's my blog for my road trip of 2017. I hope you enjoy it.