Monday, 30 November 2009

Missing Dubai..

Got back from the US trip a week or so ago and London has been pissing down with rain ever since. Combined with the inevitably dramatic next episode of the family soap and the slight matter of having no job and thus zero income ... yep... reality is kicking in big time!

Luckily my mind has been slightly taken off all of this grimness by the kind of drama in Dubai which is really making me wish I was there! First, people one wouldn't have expected to lose their jobs did and then it was revealed that Sheikh Mo didn't buy any new racehorses in Kentucky this year.... er.... I mean that Dubai World can't pay its debts as scheduled. The news was mostly covered in the UK in the usual slavering and hysterical fashion and I lost count of the glaring factual errors even in the so called quality press (FT being the honourable exception). I also lost count of how many times I read 'playground of the rich', 'desert sands shift' and that old favourite 'dark side'. Will somebody please rescue British Journalism?

Anyway.... what all of this means is that the exchange of gossip, rumour and speculation in the UAE right now must be absolutely unmissable.... and I am deeply sorry that I am missing it. It was what made living there most worthwhile! Well ... and the weather in winter. And the art of course....

Friday, 20 November 2009

Beaches, bays, seals and sunsets..

The Pacific horizon seen from the dramatic, rocky beaches of a 1000 mile (ish) coastline with mountains behind is a combination that makes the central Californian coast unique and special. Add loads of wildlife, the Big Sur River, creeks, waterfalls, pine, redwood and eucalyptus trees and it really is a mega fix for nature junkies. This is the fourth time I’ve been here and it is still as beautiful although the effects of last year’s wildfires and subsequent landslides are still visible. A lot of the trails in the parks are still closed and there are repairs and reinforcements along the coastal Route 1.

This part of the trip was really easy. We know this road so well we didn’t have to think about it and we spent a lot of time just walking on beaches, looking at rocks and sunsets……

Or sitting by the Big Sur River…..

We also spent time with the elephant seals near Gorda Springs….

And the sea lions, cormorants and herons in Monterey…..

We also went on a boat trip out of Monterey Bay where we got to see a humpback whale, a bunch of dolphins, zillions of jellyfish and a sun fish. 

Arrived in San Francisco and went out to celebrate the fact that we’d made it across the whole of the USA from East to West without any major problems and amazing weather. Apart from a few hours of rain in Kansas and three days happily watching the world not go by in snowy Denver, it was sunny and clear for the entire two months of the trip.  Now sitting in hotel in Newark, New Jersey right where we started after flying back across the continent from San Fran.

Avoiding cities and interstates made this trip pretty relaxed most of the time and staying in small towns made it a much more interesting experience. In the middle of the country almost everyone we met seemed to vote Republican including one woman who actually said ‘Fox News is the Truth’ and a lone Democrat who assured me ‘There are no liberals in America’.  We also found some of the quackest (and creepiest) TV religionists in the middle too, some of whom seem to think the Bible was written by Nostradamus.

I was intending to see and write about a lot more (presumably still) ‘liberal’ art on this trip but it didn’t happen. This was partly because we were on the road and not spending much time in towns except to sleep and eat (and canvas political views in motels, restaurants and bars…). However, I think it was mostly because the spectacle and enormity of the landscape was so all encompassing it seemed to become the art itself or at least make human creation temporarily redundant. So I guess there will have to be more art ..... on the next road trip! We could start in Boston and head west from there taking the Northern Route instead ......

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Zion to Vegas to SLO ...

The drive from Bryce to our next stop of Zion National Park was on the two scenic highways of 89 and 9 both characterised by mountainous scenery, intermittent plains and occasionally an arc h to drive through.

Zion has solid, vertical rock faces that seem to go straight up to the sky, very different to the delicacy of Bryce. The only way of entering the park from the East is through a dark, narrow, mile long tunnel going straight through a mountain. The tunnel is illuminated by carved ‘windows’ in the side of the mountain and although going through it was pretty freaky, it was amazing looking back at the side of the mountain and seeing the windows from the outside.

After the solitude of Bryce, Zion seemed quite hectic. There was a constant stream of traffic on the park driveway and a lot of people on the mostly paved trails including two busloads of Chinese tourists and a high school busload too. So we didn’t really do much except stare at huge rocks, sit by the river and get rained on by Weeping Rock where droplets of water cascade gently from an overhang.  Outside of the park, however, there are several other hiking trails so we took one long, and very hot hike through a backcountry desert area surrounded by mountains.

One of the most enjoyable things was actually just chilling in the town of Springdale which forms the western entrance to Zion. There are of course lots of motels serving the park but they don’t take over because Springdale is a really pleasant and funky little town with a lot of personality and some great restaurants. This was a marked contrast to the horrendous tourist town creation of Ruby’s Inn at the entrance to Bryce which we studiously avoided by staying 10 miles down the road in Tropic.

From Zion we left on Route 9 and then joined the I-15 where we drove through a corner of Arizona for about 15 miles before crossing the Nevada state line. We were heading to Vegas baby…..

The last time spouse and myself were in Vegas was nine years ago and we had lots of fun. We stayed two nights at the Hard Rock Hotel then so we stayed two nights at the Hard Rock Hotel this time too. The difference was that last time we got married so this time was an anniversary celebration. The Hard Rock Hotel is truly wonderful for musical obsessives like spouse and myself and after six weeks of cheap motels, staying in a huge corner room with glass walls on the 11th floor was absolute bliss. We had lots of fun this time but it’s pretty easy to have fun in Vegas. It’s such a wacky town all you need to do is sit with a long, cold drink in an assortment of locations and just watch the wackiness go by. I gambled a whole dollar in a slot machine at Caesar’s Palace and promptly quit after getting 6 dollars back so don’t suppose I’ll ever develop a gambling problem.

From Vegas it was a short whizz through the desert to California and a night in Bakersfield which brought us back down to earth with a crash. The town seems to have tripled in size since we were last there and we drove around for ages in rush hour with no map frantically looking for a motel. When the ‘Americas Best Value Inn' sign suddenly appeared amid the exhaust fumes I almost wept with relief. The evening then improved dramatically when we discovered Pizzaland. Bakersfield may have grown but it still seemed like the whole town was in there watching the football, drinking beer and eating good pizza.

From there it was a relatively short hop towards the central Californian coast and having been to California on three previous trips this part of the journey was very familiar. Pulling into San Luis Obispo (one of our favourite towns on the planet) felt like coming home but it also felt a little sad because it meant we were entering the last stage of the trip and we don’t want it to end…. ever! Can’t we just drive around seeing cool stuff until we just drop dead by the roadside???

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Bryce Canyon

The next morning we were back on Route 12 and pretty soon arrived at a destination that almost everyone we spoke to had advised us to visit – Bryce Canyon.  There are no adjectives, in English at least, that can begin to convey the jaw-dropping awesomeness of Bryce Canyon. The first day was amazing enough and that was just taking the Queens Garden and Navajo loop trail around what is called the amphitheatre.

 Bryce is characterised by hoodoos which are vertically eroded limestone formations. The old Indian legend is that the people who lived here were bad and so Coyote turned them into rock and there they stand (or sit) to this day for all to see. There are two types of limestone but other minerals and anomalies of geological history combine to create not only shapes but a subtle and beautiful harmony of colours.

On our second day we drove the whole 18 miles of the park stopping at overlooks like the Natural Bridge and hiking the short and easy Bristlecone Loop at the southern end. This was just a warm up for the magnificent Fairyland Trail at the northern end of Bryce. It’s quite a tough trail over 4 miles which switches elevations so it goes up and down a lot before ending at a feature called Tower Bridge.

There is an alternative return route but Fairyland was so magical we walked the whole 4 miles back as well. Partly because it’s a tough trail and partly because of the season we only saw another two people over the entire 5 hours or so it took us. Most of the time our only other company was the ravens and even they disappeared for much of this trail so it was like being the lone explorers of another planet at times. In fact the whole experience was pretty much out of this world.......


The first night in Utah was spent at the Green River Budget Inn which was an old independent motel in the town centre. Green River was a perfect example of a phenomenon we have noticed in a lot of these small US towns. As you enter the towns there are a whole cluster of newish looking chain motels accompanied by fast food places and in the town itself there are inevitably several derelict independent motel buildings and restaurants. Visitors no longer need to go into the town itself and this has a really negative effect on the economies of some of these small towns. 

The manager of the Budget Inn told us that people don’t trust old looking motels any more either. This is such a shame because independent motels always have more character, are generally cheaper, have thicker walls and are downtown so you can actually walk somewhere to eat and get to meet a few locals at the same time. It also means you get to see bizarre things like the real missile placed ornamentally in the park opposite the Budget Inn.

From Green River we slightly backtracked to the national park of Canyonlands before heading west again. This was a nice stop with views over canyons and mountains and a great view through a big natural arch.  There was actually another park nearby full of natural sandstone arches but we spent so long in Canyonlands we decided to give this a miss and move on.

We spent that night in the tiny town of Hanksville in a rather pricey (but swish) motel called the Henry Mountain Hideaway which seemed to be the only accommodation in town. We actually had to telephone the manager who then drove down to the motel to take our money and give us the key. The whole transaction was completed inside the only store in the town which he also seemed to be the manager of. We needed some food for dinner so he got some more of our money. I guess this explains why he was driving a Bentley.

The journey through Utah was stunning from the start. From the I-70 we took, highway 24 south and then continued south on Highway 12. There really isn’t very much in this part of Utah except small towns, big mountains, multicoloured rocks and desert landscapes. Occasionally there are some cows or horses but that’s about it apart from the moon which seems to be visible for most of the day as well as night.  We passed through Capitol Reef park and had a couple of nice stops. One where we just parked in a layby and walked around a rocky desert area with the Henry Montains in the background and another official trail through a very echoey steep sided canyon.

When we got as far as Boulder we stopped and stayed at the Circle Mountains Motel which will be our smallest and cutest motel experience for sure. It was actually one of three rooms in a building next to the owner’s house and had obviously been decorated personally and with great care. As much as I like motels this was a nice change from the format and a restaurant serving classic American 'home cookin'he town was just a short walk past the ranch as the sun set .........

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The perfect storm..

Coming into Denver, Highway 285 magically turned into route 30 which couldn’t have been better because we were visiting an old friend of mine who just happened to live off route 30! I hadn’t heard or seen anything of this friend for almost 25 years and then a few months ago he found me on Facebook. There are people from my past who I would really not want to find me on Facebook, but I was absolutely delighted to hear from this guy so Denver was a must.

The weather was fine when we arrived but a snowstorm started later that night and the next morning everything was under 8 inches of snow. It snowed for most of that day and all through the following night and all we could do was grin as the car disappeared under a thick, white dome. It was absolutely fantastic. We did nothing that first day except sit around in my friend’s lovely, peaceful apartment, listen to music, attempt to remember what happened 25 years ago and generally catch up with each other’s lives.

The next day, my friend had to work so spouse and myself decided to go downtown. We couldn’t actually move the car so we headed out on foot looking for a bus. In the end we found a cab which got us to Nine Mile station and we took the light rail into central Denver.
 The seats on the platforms were the only colour other than white for most of the journey and even Denver’s giant blue bear was a little snowed under.  We took a bus down to Colfax (which has got to be Denver’s greatest street) and spent a lot of time in a music store called Twist and Shout where we found some vintage concert posters as well as new (and old) music. Walking back up Colfax we saw a lot of interesting looking places and a rather impressive icicle display …..

When we got up the next day, the sun was out and the snow was already melting. The perfect storm was sadly over so after checking that the interstate going west was clear, we rather reluctantly got back on the road.  We went part of the way back via the eastern end of Colfax where there are a lot of interesting old motel buildings and two old theatres, the Fox and the Bluebird, which are now regular Denver music venues. Next time we'll go to a gig..... or two....

Normally interstates are pretty dull but the I-70 crossed through part of the Rockies and it was breathtaking. The mountains towered above the road on all sides and there was a particular section as we exited a tunnel that is one of the most beautiful natural sights I have ever seen.

We spent that night in the small Rocky Mountain town of Eagle which had a lot going for it. Fantastic location, good restaurant with excellent food, views and a huge log fire. The mural painted Eagle Grand Motel was in spitting distance too. Unfortunately our room was freezing cold with a crap heater but what was infinitely worse was being next door to the resident loony. He had the TV blasting all night while he was crashed out, presumably after taking his prescription meds which he had informed us about earlier. When he was awake he was either running a manic monologue about Bible College or singing disjointed fragments from late Neil Young and Fleetwood Mac albums. From his age and appearance we concluded that he had probably taken too much of the brown acid and didn't get his memory back until the 1970s.

We got up the next morning cold, tired and homicidal but the beauty of the I-70 that took us the rest of the way out of Colorado meant that we were feeling good again as we crossed the State Line into Utah accompanied by Townes Van Zandt…..

Sunday, 1 November 2009

New Mexico to Colorado

It may only have been for one night but in the end we did stay in Texas! The town of Dalhart is in the top west sliver of Texas sandwiched between OK and New Mexico. We had a good night’s sleep after a great burger in a local eatery full of men in cowboy hats. Back on Highway 54 the next morning we soon crossed the state line into New Mexico. After a flattish start it opened up into mountains but once again it was the sky that seemed to dominate everything. We got into Albuquerque on a beautiful evening with low cloud just hanging over the Sandia Mountains which sit at the eastern end of the city. 

We actually came in on the New Mexico part of Route 66 which still constitutes Albuquerque’s central street. Lined with shops and motels there are a lot of classic old signs and some very distinctive buildings. There is a unique merging of Art Deco and Pueblo Indian architecture so you get a lot of single story traditional sandy coloured houses with rounded edges

The Old Town at the western end of the city is full of old buildings and an ancient church protected by huge bunches of chillies hanging each side of the door.

We stopped off in ABQ for several days to get a break from the road, to go hiking in the Sandia mountains and to have an art, music and book shop fix. Although our first hike took us up through cacti, huge rocks and the start of a fir forest, we didn’t get all the way to the mountain ridge so for the next hike we took the tramway up 10,000 feet instead.  There was snow all across the top and magnificent views across the city on one side, plains and more mountains on the other. A hike through the snowy forest on the ridge was magical but needed a lot of breathing stops. At that height you really start to notice the change in the air.  The mountains are called 'Sandia' (which means watermelon) because some of the rock can look very red. We noticed this in evening particularly but also when we were up close in the cable car.
 After our one dedicated night on the town, we went to the Standard Diner for a huge and excellent breakfast burrito which cleared our rather fuzzy heads. The diner had a lot of interesting photos and paintings including a series of retro atmospheric, neon-lit motels some of which were excellent but rather absurdly overpriced.

The rest of the day was spent roaming around town on foot or by bus and included a visit to the very impressive Albuquerque Museum of Art. It was lucky timing because there was a special exhibition of contemporary Albuquerque art. Some very, very good stuff but no cameras allowed and no catalogue either so I can’t give any samples. Out of about 40 artists only 5 or so were actually from Albuqerque. The others were from all over the US with a few international artists too which is a good advert for the city's art scene. The museum also had an excellent permanent collection of art from New Mexico. It was fascinating to see how 20th century art movements and styles had been interpreted through the prism of this area and how much the landscape plays a central and unifying role.

On one of the Sandia hikes we got chatting with a couple who had lived in ABQ for 17 years and they invited us to stay with them. After some rather dubious motel experiences we were delighted to accept their offer and had a really nice evening in their house before retiring to our detached motel suite in their yard. (Thank you!!) They also gave us some great advice about the next stage of the trip and I will be eternally grateful for their suggestion that we take Highway 285 all the way to Denver. What a fantastic road! It went past mountains, plains, small towns, sand dunes and even had a ‘mystic road’ section which is apparently the location of choice for visiting UFOs.

Into Colorado

There had obviously been overnight snow in Colorado and much of the route after crossing the state line looked like this.

The first town we stopped at was Antonito which sits under a mountain and has a very old (and famous) light gauge railway. We got chatting to a guy who had saved us from getting a parking ticket and he said that most people in Antonito were from families that had been there as far back as 1598.

There was a mural showing the history of the town which could have been the history of America and there was another painted all around two huge silos. Unfortunately my camera battery died after the first few pics but we walked around for some time and probably met half the people who live there in the process. There was definitely something special about Antonito. 

From there we went to Salida which is on the Arkansas River and is surrounded by mountains. It has some of the oldest original buildings in the area and is a really pretty town although it hasn’t always been like this. Apparently it used to be a bit of a dump but artists started to move in during the 70s and now it is stuffed with galleries, arts and craft shops so I guess there’s hope for Paducah yet.

One place in particular, the First Street Studio, had a great space out back with a sculpture in progress made from dentist’s equipment by John D. Auclair who we had an interesting chat with. The gallery in front also had some very good sculpture by Chris Byars (gallery founder and first artist to move into Salida), as well as excellent photographs and some other odd and interesting things.

The next morning we got back on the beautiful 285 and started seriously hitting the mountains ..