On and Off Route 66 – 2

This is the second blog of our long mid-semester drive to and beyond the Grand Canyon in 1998.

Tuesday 10 March

We were relieved to find it dry and sunny when we awoke. We completed the final 80 miles to a highly organized tourist complex, stopping only for a swift coffee at the most up-market McDonalds either of us had seen. It had disconcertingly smart, polished, wood furniture and tasteful decorations and paintings. A grey coyote slunk across the road as we eased our way up to the South Rim of the Canyon. The first glimpse of the giant split in the Earth takes the breath away: it’s the scale that does it. It comprises a huge tiered set of rock faces unevenly carved by the Colorado River over a period of 10 million years. Long preliminary explorations and impressions concluded with a snack lunch at a hotel overlooking the Canyon, El Tovar, after which Eric (‘your server today’) advised us to end the day watching the sunset from Mohave Point. In the interim we moved slowly from the Canyon’s East to its West Rim. The sights remained spectacular from the tower at Desert View to the rocks at Hermits Rest. By the time we made our way back to Mohave Point for sunset, however, we were tired and wilting. The conditions for witnessing and photographing the sunset were propitious enough, but maybe we were too fatigued, or maybe we stood waiting too long, getting colder (we were wading through snow at this point). But the day’s panoramas had been more than worth any mild discomfort as the sun disappeared. The drive back took us close by another coyote and a trio of deer. By the time we re-entered Flagstaff I had driven a further 250 miles, and this on my day off. But a confession: Annette was content to take over, but I ‘wanted to drive’ and I was relishing the growing mileage (very masculine). Moreover, we had decided to head westwards.

Wednesday 11 March

We were faced with a long drive through a sizeable chunk of Arizona; but it was a state that grew on us as we progressed through it. Both landscape and climate altered dramatically. Relatively soon after leaving the snow close to Flagstaff we found ourselves hot and dry and flanked by giant cacti, some of them 15-20 feet high. Always on the horizon there seemed to be another mountain range.

Eventually Arizona gave way to California and the cacti to flowers, vivid yellows, oranges, reds and purples, among the first flowers we had seen in the USA, hitherto a land of trees and bushes. Palm trees began to appear. Perhaps distracted by the scenery, we somewhere and somehow decided not to skirt Los Angeles but to drive straight through the middle. It proved a fraught experience. We slipped past Beverley Hills and Hollywood without seeing, or wanting to see, much of them, and joined the Santa Monica Highway. It was replete, even nauseous, with traffic, notably late-afternoon commuters. It was no more difficult driving than in, say, London, since US Interstates go like arrows through their major cities (except New York); there was just more of everything. The sun was setting low over the vast downtown segment of the city as we passed close by. It gave a soft and friendly glow to what is meant to be one the most dangerous urban locales, already abandoned by pedestrians by early evening. We were aiming at the Santa Monica Pier, where we hoped to catch a first glimpse of the Pacific. We found the Pier, but not the Pacific: or rather, it was there, but we could only see it via reflected light. We came across a Starbucks and – untroubled in those innocent days by issues like tax avoidance – stopped to take caffeine. As we sipped out coffees in our window seats a middle-aged couple in shorts and plugged into their music roller-bladed by. This was California.

We opted to continue on to San Diego, a further 100 miles, although it was by this time dark. We wanted maintain some kind of schedule because we were unsure how long it would take us to make the journey back to Atlanta. It was then that we got snarled up in one of the infamous Los Angeles traffic jams. For 90 minutes, as we slowly and steadily ran out of gas, we sat is a queue, unaware of the cause of the blockage at the entry to the freeway to San Diego. When we moved and gathered pace, we were, like that episode outside of Santa Fe, just in time in finding a gas station. But in truth Los Angeles was as exciting to leave as it had been to enter: great areas of the city, mile upon mile, including construction sites with their giant cranes, were by this time illuminated by immensely powerful floodlights: it was as if this massive, bulging urban zone had been transmuted into a fairyland. We saw nothing, however, of the famed Long Beach as we sped by in blackness. We reached San Diego at 12.30am, 690 miles from Flagstaff, found a motel, and slept soundly.

Thursday 12 March

The view of the Pacific denied us the previous day was available soon after we awoke in our motel. We took a continental breakfast – coffee, as ever, being our primary concern – in the open air to the rear of the accommodation, surrounded by palms and rich, blood-red blossoms. The popular stereotype of Californians was reinforced when a couple in their early 20s cycled past. Male and female alike had long flowing blond hair (his slightly longer). I overheard him say” ‘Gee, your hair looks great blowing in the wind, honey’; and she replied, gleefully but earnestly (and between perfect teeth): ‘Why thanks you!’ After this, the receptionist indicated a quick point of access to the beach, but it was disappointing: a small, pebbly enclave off an ocean as grey-green and grim as the Atlantic. Resisting her advice to book in for another night, we packed and got into the Buick to find a better vantage point.

We drove initially downtown, parking in a multi-storey ‘stacker’ amidst the skyscrapers. This cosmopolitan environment was not really what we had come to see, but we did find one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever tasted. As interested in quantity as quality, what I relished most was its width; it demanded elastic mouth muscles. Then we found amore picturesque scene. Leaving the car on a meter, we discovered a seafront café, where we relaxed and managed to scribble several postcards. I think it was here that I began to lose count of the number of ‘on the road’ cards I had dispatched to my father.

Eventually of course we had to drive some more. Again I was surprised at my stamina: I think this kind of semi-conscious daydreaming monotony along straight flat Interstates must suit my temperament (which may be worrying). More of California, taking on the appearance of a middle-eastern desert, all sand dunes, then we entered Arizona, this time heading for Tucson. It was 460 miles later that we took a room, actually more like a decorated but sealed concrete cell; but the bed was comfortable enough.

Friday 13 March

Tucson was not especially endearing, although this may be unfair. As we moved rapidly around we formed a series of immediate impressions, doubtless some of them unjust. Anyway, we left it behind. Annette had alerted me to Tombstone, the old western outpost, which the Interstate glances, so we had to take a quick detour to investigate en route to San Antonio.

Visiting Tombstone involved turning off the Interstate at Benson, one of a number of old – 1870s – mining towns in the vicinity. We entered the town close to the cemetery, the ‘Boothill Graveyard’. Its incumbents had their stories to tell. Only two had died natural deaths, the rest having been short, killed by local apaches, taken their own lives or, in one case, ‘hanged in error’. We ate lunch at the Grand Hotel in the main street, a venue once frequented by the Earp brothers; an excellent blues guitarist entertained us as I had my first beer for a long while. We walked down the street to the ‘Old Bird Cage Theatre’, the most notorious bordello in the country between 1881 and 1889. The ‘bird cages’ were used by the prostitutes servicing their punters and overlooked the gambling tables below. The place had been re-opened only recently, exactly as it was over a century ago: the tables where ‘Doc’ Holliday placed his bets are just as they were. Wyatt Earp met his third wife in one of the cages here. Ignoring a staged re-run of the gunfight at OK corral, wandered over the site of this infamous shoot-out. Our imaginations were not assisted by terrible life-size cut-outs of the protagonists. But it had been a good diversion.

(Reading Teferttiller’s Wyatt Earp a few years later I discovered that Earp refereed a world-boxing bout between Fitzsimmons and Sharkey when in his late 40s. It was a task he was to regret: he had to be disarmed of his Colt’s Navy revolver prior to the bout (fearing his enemies might use the opportunity to kill him); and when he disqualified Fitzsimmons for a low blow he found himself in court charged with fixing the fight as part of a betting scandal. Here’s another odd afterthought: Wyatt Earp died as late as 1929. America is a young country indeed.)

Back on the road we found ourselves driving into an electric storm. The sky, alarmingly dark ahead, was again and again split by lightening that seemed to stretch to touch the ground. The rain came and went. Tired after a mere 380 miles we submitted to a resting place, fortuitously at El Paso. Annette’s research during the meal told us that we could easily walk across the border to El Paso’s twin city ion Mexico, Juarez. We resolved to do just that in the morning (even though it would mean us returning a day late to Emory).

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