Thursday, 11 October 2012

A land of deserts and canyons

Our home for the next fortnight
After the setback of realising that our planned rental car for a fortnight would not just stretch our budget but completely obliterate it, Karl's Uncle Fred came to the rescue. He agreed to lend us their second car, a 20 year old Ford Lincoln Town Car, on the proviso that it might break down and leave us stranded in the desert. For the freedom it gave us, that was a risk we were well prepared to take. Excitedly, we set to work preparing the car for an expedition, filling the huge trunk with a tent, tarp, old maps Fred dug out for us, crates of supplies and gallons of water.

Joshua tree cacti in Mojave
This time we were headed away from the Pacific coast, to a land of desert and canyons. We traced out a route on the map through California to Nevada, Utah and Arizona, initially crossing a network of graded roads (trying to avoid the dotted ones) that would take us through the heart of the Mojave desert. That was where we spent our first night, having driven along a dirt track into the darkness to sleep out on our tarp in the warmth of a still, perfectly clear, starry desert night. We woke at dawn to find ourselves lying beside prickly pears and spiky yuccas in a landscape of scrub covered sand. Having driven  further into the Mojave, between place-names like Hole in the Wall and Devil's Playground, we walked between cacti the shape and size of barrels and cliffs puckered like swiss cheese, to ascend a small and easy canyon. The desert was devoid of people- summer is very much low season here- but flora and fauna were surprisingly abundant, with delicate flowers, lizards scuttling off the path and birds hopping between cacti, oblivious to their thorns.

We quickly realised that the Lincoln did not cope well with the drifts of sand that had piled up on the unmaintained tracks. It was far too early in the trip to risk being stranded in the desert, especially with the car dashboard displaying 106'F (41'C) so after a nerve wracking 6 or 8 point turn on the sand covered road (the Lincoln is a very long car and it was a narrow road!) we returned to the safety of the interstate to Nevada, signed to Las Vegas.

The Fremont Street experience
We'd read that there was no point visiting Vegas unless you had money burning a hole in your pocket, but we were determined to disprove this and have fun on a budget. Granted, this meant spectating rather than getting involved, and the shows and exhibitions were definitely out of our reach, but there were frozen margueritas in the casino bars for $1 (a barely alcoholic but tasty slush puppy), lots of free stuff to watch, and the bizarre, fantastical architecture to marvel at. Best of all, we had a $10 deal in a motel with a pool, wifi and heart-attack inducing breakfast included. Walking The Strip was fascinating, each casino trying to outdo the last with ridiculous facades of castles, fake volcanoes, moats, statues and waterfalls. Amongst many others, there was the trendy, plush Cosmopolitan, the interior modelled on the inside of a chandelier, with a roof-top pool bar where we were turned away as Karl had no collar. Next door was the skyline of the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty at the casino 'New York, New York'. A volcano erupted hourly over the lake at Mirage, and replica pirate ships lay in a moat before Treasure Island. Here we joined crowds to watch a free show involving sequinned dancers, crude innuendos, cannonballs firing real flames, and concluding with the sinking of a life sized pirate ship as dancers somersaulted into the water from the rigging! I was most impressed by the dancing fountains of Bellagio, cannons of water shooting high into the sky or swirling in circles of mist, set to music in a light and water show more impressive than any firework display. Then there was the digital overhead light show of the Fremont Street experience, where waves of fluorescent colours spread across the ceiling, pulsating to a rock soundtrack like a giant screen-saver gone mad. It's all pretty garish, but you can't help being mesmerised.

How did we end up in Venice?!
We didn't gamble, neither of us has a clue how, but watched the blackjack tables, peering into the 'high limit' rooms and wondering at how much money was changing hands between the suited, poker faced, Chinese businessmen and women. Finally, at 2am on our last night there, we had the surreal experience of wandering along the Grand Canal of Venice and sitting in St Marco's Square under a soft dawn sky- the swimming pool-turquoise of the canal the only obvious sign of pretence.Vegas clearly wasn't our scene, but it was unmissable. After 2 days, it was with some relief we left the traffic of the city and drove to where the desert rises into mountains, folded into striped layers of toffee coloured rock, entering Utah under darkening skies.

Swimming in The Subway
Zion National Park initially looked like a sunburned version of Yosemite, striking red cliffs rising above the green valley. For 2 days we explored water filled canyons, narrowing and deepening as they twist through the rock. The 'Subway', so named because of it's fantastically rounded shape in one section where it almost tunnels through the rock, made for a brilliant day. Starting off in a relatively wide valley with a picturesque river running through it, the canyon became more and more dramatic as we climbed over waterfalls and eventually entered a log jammed slot canyon, ducking under chock stones and swimming through dark brown plunge pools. All the time these huge red cliffs tower above, sometimes blocking out the sun entirely while in other places it streams through to fall as a shaft on the sandy floor. We couldn't stop grinning as we scrambled up as far as we could, fully clothed but soaking wet, experiencing swimming in hiking boots for the first time. The Narrows, the following day, is a much more well known day trip but still spectacular. This route involves wading or swimming in the river almost all day long and is surprisingly popular, given that most people visiting national parks don't seem to like to get their feet wet. Initially people start off trying to stay on the banks of the river, but by the end everyone is swimming.

The Narrows get narrow

Hoodoos of Bryce at sunrise
From Zion a dramatic drive took us out of the red mountains and to the unique environment of Bryce Canyon. Here, pine trees fall away to cliffs eroded into turreted pinnacles called hoodoos, dropping to the bottom of the escarpment. The hoodoos' orange tips fade to pinks and whites in stripes across the landscape. The effect is otherworldly - these huge pinnacles like giant stalacmites resemble well dribbled candles, sometimes joined together into fairy tale castles. The contrast of the dark green pines against the candied tones of the rock is quite beautiful, especially after rain when it's bright, fresh and gleaming. The view from the rim is bewitching, but better still is to walk along the paths that wind between the towers. In our travels, we've never seen anywhere quite like it.

Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado river
Leaving Bryce, our plan at this stage was to spend a while exploring the slot canyons of Southern Utah. This is what had originally drawn me to the area, after seeing pictures in magazines of impossibly carved canyons and striped rocks curving in waves, but especially after watching the film '127 hours'. Unfortunately, a series of severe flash floods had wiped out most of the roads and filled many canyons with debris. Without a high clearance, four wheel drive car (the Lincoln didn't quite fit the bill) there was very little we could do here. Somewhere to come back to another year, with another vehicle. After walking in just one canyon, slipping in the slick layer of mud left by the most recent flood, we left for Arizona.

Wild camping doesn't get much better than this
The Grand Canyon comes with so much hype you feel like you already know exactly what it's going to be like. We were keen to find a way to experience it without the crowds, and had a tip off about a wonderfully isolated spot on the North Rim, far from the viewpoints and visitor centres of the much more frequented South Rim. So we drove along 30 miles of a forestry track through pinderosa pines to reach Crazy Jug Point. Outside the national park and in national forest 'free camping' is not only allowed but encouraged by the helpful rangers who will point out good spots on the map, very handy for cheapskates like us who don't want to stay in serviced camp sites. It was an unbeatable place to spend a night, literally on the lip of the canyon. We had the view entirely to ourselves, watching both sunset and sunrise, and the storms that passed over the landscape miles away. A very memorable and highly recommended place to experience this awe inspiring landscape.

Down into the canyon
We wanted to spend a night inside the canyon as well, and for this we needed a permit and to drive the 4 hours or so to the South Rim (it's only about 12 miles across but 220 miles around!). Here, we headed down into a different climate- from the cool of the forested North Rim at about 23'C, the canyon bottom was at a boiling 41'C. We set off down the South Kaibab trail after the heat of the day had passed, and all the other walkers had left. It was a spectacular walk, zigzagging around cliffs glowing in tones of orange, red and purple in the late afternoon light, down to the Colorado river. We arrived at the Bright Angel campsite just as night fell, and with the air still at 30'C, we lay on the pebbly bottom of a nearby stream, getting pushed around by the current, cooling off in the hot and humid night. There was no need for a tent here so we slept out on the sandy ground, and the next day ascended 1500 metres back up the rim. Joining the many others who stepped out of their cars to gather at a viewpoint for sunset that evening we were hot, sweaty and exhausted, but felt like we'd experienced the Grand Canyon from the best possible perspectives.

A classic canyon view
The next day we began our return journey to Orange County, stopping to slide down natural water chutes at Slide Rock state park, a busy but really fun picnic spot, and to window-shop for cowboy boots and hats in Prescott, Arizona. Our last day was spent in Joshua Tree national park, scrambling up boulders and walking through cactus gardens. It had been a very busy and extremely varied taster of the South West, and had only fuelled a desire to see more of this landscape, so different from the mountains where we normally spend our time. The Lincoln had survived, and once the sand and mud had been power-hosed away you'd never know the adventures it had been on, ready to return to the life as a 'town car' that it was intended for.

Cactus gardens of Joshua Tree


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