A decision has been made. This will influence the entire dynamic of the trip. So be it. I am heading westwards through Arizona, directly to California.
I ended up at the Very Large Array telescopes last night, which seemed like a necessary end point (and eventually end shot) to my meanderings in the deserts of New Mexico.
Hares, antelopes and cows roamed freely among the array of parabolic machinery, which spans for miles through the flat prairies. I was surprised there was little to no security – a reality I have now become accustomed to. Partly because this was a Sunday evening. So I strolled around leisurely. Spent the night near the site, truly alone in the desert, stars and moon shining above. Too few of these nights have I had so far.
And I can now confirm that nights in the desert are cool. This also due to the elevation, which make the next days a lot more pleasant.
So I am headed to California, instead of going up the Rockies as I had initially expected. Part of me fears the long awaited arrival on the West Coast will be anticlimactic, since there is so much left to see.
But there is no time for regrets, enough time has been wasted to reach the decision. The road ahead is full of promises.
Drove into Arizona, came across two cyclists-wanderers, one fairly young, the other not so much. Lugging bags of living on small racks. Brave people to confront the afternoon sun with such dedication, mile after mile.
I’m surprised to see the elevation at Springerville is 7,200 feet. I’m running out of adjectives to describe the scenery. Partly surprised to see the re-appearance of trees and greens, though, as I learn, these are more prevalent in the northern part of Arizona, due to the altitude. The partially clouded day shades the round peaks, flat-top plateaus and grassy plains on the horizon, bringing out their features.
I eat at Speedy B’s (burger…). An angry grandmother is roughing up her sulking granddaughter, pulling her arm:
“By the time he (the waiter) gets back you better know what you want.”
The blonde-dyed mother doesn’t say a thing.
I spend some time in the local library, shockingly clean and modern. It rains during most of the afternoon.
After spending the night at the entrance to the Petrified Forest national park, where I cooked rice with ravioli and beans – using the electric plate for the first time, had some trouble with my gas burner and managed to find an electric outlet on the outside of one of the museums-slash-souvenir shops – I made my way into the Park as it opened.
I was immediately impressed. My stay in Arizona will undoubtedly be geologically-focused (don’t ever say undoubtedly!). Then again, this is not surprising considering how many efforts have been put in developing a tourism industry that mostly seeks these canyon-y wonders.
(I am reminded through my flimsy research that it would be good to include something about immigration, and of course American Indians, in this particular part of the travels).
Made some notes about trees becoming minerals, the inverse process of inanimate matter ‘turning into’ life.
I have in the past put the first few notes on an essay lamenting our not only humano-centric view (which is yet comprehensible in terms of an evolutionary perspective) but more generally speaking our bio-centric view.
That is, placing life above other forms in our ethical scales. This is not to be confused with the praise of necromancy or macabre behaviors (these are not the opposite of a bio-centric view).
Years later, I joyfully learned that life itself, it seemed, was the mere result of elaborate enough chemical and atomic processes (in other words, that the line between life and non-life is itself fine, if not indefinite, in the manner of the chick and egg).
Now, looking at the mineralization of trees witnessed here at the Petrified Forest, I observe the reverse process.
Spent the morning reading with side door open on what seems to be the high point of the park, with a gorgeous view on the Jasper Forest: ‘painted’ rock formations, fields, a plateau in the distance.
The temperature is appreciably cool.
Cloudy skies splashed the fields with alternate hues of golden and blues. At about noon a violent storm erupted, which had been foreshadowed all morning by the rising clouds. Winds spattered the car, sending dust and pebbles into it, seconds before the onslaught of rain and lightning.
The skies clear, I wander off to read at another viewpoint.
The newspaper rock: a story, a map, an itinerary
– The sun rising over flat-top plateaus
– Moon / sun: number of days for journey?
– Following a path, winding, looks like a river
– Walking (feet)
– Last hand big: meaning?
– Other hands? Labor?
– People, animals, cattle
– Farmlands or zones along the way?
Some angry parents, frustrated by the heat, drive, and excited kids.
Later. I witness a rare scene, almost eerie in its beauty: as the sun set, a cloud with a circular hole passed in front of it. The sun descended almost exactly through this miraculous opening.
A Park Ranger, kindly informing me it’s time to leave the park, but at my pace, who had also witnessed the peculiar sight: “I often say, the best thing around here is the sky.”
Interesting. I agree. Strong winds and high altitude make for rapidly shifting skies.
This combined with the unfettered horizon is what truly brings out the relief of the colorful landscape.
Stop by in Holbrook.
I’m stopped in the street by three American Indian women, worn by tear, while I’m on the phone.
After the usual where-you-from introduction:
“Got some change to spare?”
I decline to help the honest alcoholics.
I’m aware this possibly plays into a negative stereotype about Amer-Indians, but I hadn’t even thought of this before the encounter.
A thought I had during my stay in the Painted Desert: most westerns and other modern media depict Indians in the plains and plateaus that are typical of NorthEastern Arizona and New Mexico. Of course this is a conveniently scenic setting for the shooting of movies and such. But is also one that, through the force of repetitive persuasion, impresses upon the imagination of people that these are the (only) places Indians ever inhabited, thus making less ostensibly atrocious (or eventually negating entirely) the fact of their displacement from more hospitable lands to these small areas dubbed reservations.
Met three college girls who are doing Route 66 this morning, they have their own blog:
They requested that I include a picture of them in the ‘desert’ collage – who knows?
Spend the day @ Joe & Aggie’s working. Will soon leave for Winslow, where a meteorite crater awaits.
I think I’m about ready to promote the blog, in expectation of the final works this Fall. Please help to spread the word! Like it, like it, love it!
Wake up in rest area near Meteor Crater. I walk up to a biker who had pitched a tent nearby – I had noticed him because we both came in at the same time, after being booted out of the gas station close to Meteor Crater.
I interview a Canadian biker – not a Harley guy. He rides a Vulcan, an older model, sturdy, reliable. He mentions how he once crossed Canada to meet with his estranged brother, a Harley brother, only to find when he met his bro that he couldn’t ride along with the Harley gang.
So he followed them at whatever was deemed a respectable distance.
“The new generation. They’re assholes.”
Later, he recalls that we had both been at a nearby gas station before we were asked to leave. He on his bike had followed me onto the highway to the rest stop.
He warns me to be careful entering highways at such slow speeds. Trucks.
“I thought you were drunk.” I laugh. Just my poor old car.
Jen comes up, talks a lot but also offers heaps of useful information, get an interview of her too. She has a seasonal job checking on green gas supplies or something, and drives across the country. She enjoys it. I unfortunately don’t end up seeing many of the destinations she recommended.
Visit meteor crater, allegedly one of the largest, best conserved meteor craters on Earth.
“This is the crater? You gotta be kiddin’…” says a youngish , brutish guy with a paunch, former marine, who drives a big rig.
Served as training ground for all Apollo crews that landed on the moon.
Walnut Canyon. Cliff dwellings, carved into the porous rock. Also thought today of a wedding gift for a friend. Should be perfect hopefully.
I drive on, and up, up towards the Grand Canyon’s desert drive. I have to rest the car at times, but witness a majestic sunset splashing on the red cliffs.
There are tourists swarming everywhere.
The dance of picture-taking on the viewpoint: people barely taking a second to breathe in the view, of which they’re probably saturated after a few days, snapping a readily available smile, ad out.
One family is moving slower. The mother, short and stout, is wearing a T-shirt that says “Be naughty. Save Santa the trip.” But she is the caring mother of four strikingly bright kids – though in subtle ways. The mother is very respectful and conscientious of the people around, in contrast with the otherwise oblivious attitude of the tourists.
A French family pick-nicks on a blanket, with cheap champagne, imitation baguette, cheese and charcuterie. I wonder with amusement if that’s any better than Americans who travel abroad and can’t stay away from beloved burgers.
Full day. Great day. Too bad minor but frustrating setback in the evening regarding my photo work.
Started before sunrise, awoke in the night partly because of cold. Had driven through dark to visitor parking lot near Maher viewpoint, the central lookout of the canyon (one of a few I thought, turns out after that there are a few miles of open Rim which I hadn’t suspected).
Walked through the pre-dawn wind and cold, tripod in hand. A little proud to say I was the first one there, so got to setup at place of my choice. But it wasn’t long before one, then two, then a few, and soon what seemed like a hundred people were huddling on the platform, all awaiting the sunrise, cameras in hand, shivering and eyes drooping tiredly.
For what turns out to be, photographically speaking (and, as I mentioned, this has become the reason to be for many people, more than the beauty of the event itself), a rather disappointing sunrise. This being due to the fact that the actual sunrise over the horizon is invisible (when its rays are pink, etc.), hidden by the plateaus of the North Rim, so that by the time the sun pokes its crown above the North rim it has become a commonly pale yellow.
It then takes a good hour and half, even more, before the rock formations below get any light, by which time most if not all tourists who made the effort to watch our sweet star rise over the rim have left, cold and sometimes discouraged, to get some hearty breakfast.
I tried being more patient. The platform gradually emptied. First come, last left.
(Also concluded that sunset, or partly cloudy days, must be the only time when it’s possible to get some really good lighting for vivid shots, since during the day the canyon air seems hazy and pale – save for the rare and secret locations where the rising sun does hit the canyon as it rises pink).
Then. Seven thirty. Took the shuttle to the market plaza (oh yeah, the whole Southern Rim is a touristic village) to grab some food for a hike. Shuttle again to Hermit’s Rest, the most remote of the proposed trails, and one of the hardest ones because of its steep gradient, avaricious shade, and sheer drop-offs. But also, partly for the same reasons, one of its most rewarding and secluded ones.
I must say I was a little worried I would be in such bad shape from the lack of exercise and let’s face it shitty living conditions that I would drop from dehydration.
I descended quick, my step rather sure. It wasn’t long though before (either what they call loose footing, due to the elevation change, or perhaps because my thighs were sore from the hundreds of feet of staircases yesterday at Walnut Canyon).
I have also found to be worried by heights, in these landscapes with gutless sheer drops. It’s the geological gradation of canyons that gives and reinforces the impression of height.
I viewed the Hermit’s trail as an exercise of mental discipline. No wavering, no quivering feet are allowed. Four Swiss German guys were also on the trail, not too far behind me – this provided both a psychological and practical back up, should anything have happened.
Made it to the Santa Maria Springs, a basin with a dripping faucet – the Swiss Germans too, we talk a bit as I eat a sweat-earned lunch of blue cheese, bread and eggs. A couple of retirees soon comes to rest, they’re equipped with hiking gear. These are the only six people I see that far on the trail, a peaceful change from the Grand Canyon’s village.
Napped, till a squirrel came digging around. The Swiss Germans had continued on, the couple had went back up. I leave the springs as the four return, again, I have some ‘backup’ as I make my way back uphill.
Returning to the first part of the hike, the steep incline, we come across other people, who left at midday and are panting from dehydration. At one point on the trail a ranger has placed a line of rocks, which I later learn to be an indication that a rattlesnake was spotted nearby.
A father a son, French, are actually jogging down…
“Going down is optional, coming back up is mandatory.” I make it back up. The four guys too, we get to talking a bit. Back in the village, we look for a place to find a beer – a product which has deliberately been removed from restaurants’ menus, probably to avoid accidents. We settle for an ice cream on the lawn and rest.
I part with them and continue walking along the rim, on a paved educational trail.
A young Spaniard, dressed with a straw hat and backpack, sunglasses and loose clothes, clean-cut hippy, smokes a cigarette. He is standing by a small display of what could be cheap Mexican jewelry items. He smiles and looks good-natured. He says something about his girlfriend who’s from France, though I can’t remember.
Fifty feet ahead, a young woman, dressed in an ample and comfortable looking dress, seems to be wavering on the rim, on the flat rocks that lead to the precipice. She is off the path, but at a safe distance from the edge. However she seems very lost and when she looks I say hi in French, but the blue-green tint of her eyes is striking; it’s attractive and makes me slightly uneasy. She has a deep and empty look.
Upon more careful observation, she is probably quite young too, although there are some early signs of wrinkles at the corner of her eyes. She is probably used to a simple, itinerant life – which may produce early signs of aging.
We talk. The Spaniard soon joins us. They are very friendly, soft in speech and manner, loving each other, other people, and the world around them. I learn they’ve lived in Mexico for the past half year, after leaving Europe. In the northern region, but they’ve had no problems. They lived out their idyll together in a village, away from the city. The city is where the problems are.
Now they’re back in the US – it’s different, and more expensive. They just got here, are thinking of going to Vegas next. I happily offer to give them a ride if they would like, but warn them that I will be leaving tonight or early tomorrow morning. They appreciate the offer, more so the spontaneous spirit of it, and mull it over. They decide to stick around, the canyons are worth seeing; they’ll find other ways to hitchhike, a choice which neither pleases nor displeases me.
“Too bad, we’ll have a hard time finding someone else as nice as you.”
“No, I’m sure you’ll find someone much cooler than me.”
“I doubt it,” says the young woman. Her hair is wrapped in a scarf, she looks like a dignified gypsy, her eyes, blue. I’m happy inside.
At the end of the day, I’ve covered a little above 15k, half of which were spent on a demanding hike. And I feel great! Shower at the campsite. I am feeling in great spirit. However, I give myself too little time to make it back to the rim for sunset, and get slightly lost in the thickets, trying to rush to the canyons in time to capture their reddish gild. I curse at myself, for I had been waiting all day for this moment.
The next morning, I leave for Las Vegas, still angry at myself.
For the first time ever, I run out of gas. In the middle of Arizona. I had seen it coming, with mounting tension, followed by serene resignation, that which comes with accepting the inevitable.
Leaving the Grand Canyon, I had plucked a mere 15$ in Tuscayan – the gas was irritatingly expensive there. As I reached the I-40, the tank still seemed reasonably full. Started pushing it, the needle going down. Look at the map: no towns on this stretche. I’m falsely reassured by the fact that, despite the absence of significant towns, there are 50 exits: surely one must have a gas station.
Lo and behold, what you know ensued. Drove through endless miles of mountains and desert, the engine started sputtering, once then a few times, the gas was failing. I pushed it for a few extra miles. Until…
I remained composed. I packed a bag with essentials and valuables, should something happen in my absence. Stepped out, waving for a hike, orange cap in hand. Cars and trucks wisped by.
As luck has it, it wasn’t too long before a black van rolled onto the shoulder. Dave and his wife, a young couple. He saw me driving down, and generously U-turned on the highway, then again, to come and inquire about my troubles.
They drive me to the nearest gas station, which luckily was now within 7 miles.
“How do you plan on getting back there?” asks Dave as we park into the gas station.
“Well, I’m gonna ask for a lift.”
“No way. We’re bringing you back there.”
The gas station, also a truck stop, was out of jerri-cans. Must be common for people to run out of gas on this stretch.
Dave: “Gallon of water will do.”
I nod, a bit emptily.
“Do you have a funnel?”
I hadn’t thought about that.
“Never mind, I think I got something.”
As I pay for the gallon of water, he asks the clerk:
“You got scissors?”
The clerk gives him the scissors, I don’t know what for. Dave comes back into the shop with a water bottle, of which he cut out the bottom. Ingenious. He also asks for plastic bags, to prevent any gas stains as I fill the gallon jug.
As we drive back to the car, I mention one of the things I’ve noticed time and again while travelling is that people are willing to help out strangers. I thank them.
“No problem, You’ll do that next time you see someone stopped on the side of the road, right?”
“Although it’s true the last hitchhiker I got was… kinda crazy. He was 80 years old and didn’t know where he was going. He would keep pointing somewhere when I asked him.”
Dave looks for a stick to prop the tank open, inserts the upside down water bottle as a funnel, and tells me to pour. We get back just in time, because a cop shows up, called in by someone who had seen me waving earlier. He makes no fuss and leaves promptly.
“I’m taking pictures along the way, is there anything you like in particular?”
“Yeah. I love the sea.”
I make note of it and get in my car. It starts. Dave is waiting, he signals me to go ahead, he wants to make sure I can get on the road again.
Took a turn away from the I-40 and caught the last remains of the original route 66, winding through deserts and mountains. 122 turns, 8 miles later, I almost drove into an ass. I stand corrected: a burro. Whereas I had expected to flee the rush of people, I drove into the touristic town of Oatman.
Drive through Oatman, the remnants of a gold-rush town (1906 through 1930s), now famous for its burros who wander assuredly through the unpaved main street. Sometimes they outright dig their elongated noses into people’s cars. They are well fed, because early everybody buys donkey food clots at the souvenir shops.
End up having a Coke and Scorpion Amber Ale at the hotel bar. “Drinking is the ideal way to find out if your neck leaks.” Walls and ceilings are covered with signed dollar bills, dating back to the 1930s. There’s a clock that says “I never drink till 5.” All the hours on the dial say 5. Oatman remains, despite the end of the gold rush, a mining town. I listen to the miners’ wives chat at the bar.
Miners are required to often move from one site to the next, making it hard to settle down with wife and kids. The job is precarious because the results of a strand are never guaranteed.
It’s a tough life.