In Search of America (part III)

In the final installment of our traveller’s dream trip along Route 66 she faces her fear of snakes, gives career advice in Vegas, and drives from Santa Fe to LA.

Following on from Part I and Part II.

Waiting for a new car

Traveling from Taos to Santa Fe with the Rio Grande river on the right, down steep winding roads with hairpin bends and hundred feet cliff drops, in a tow-truck driven by a crazy man in a big hurry, with a black sense of humour, is not for the faint hearted. I asked through clenched jaws about the many roadside memorials and was met with maniacal laughter. I asked if we could stop soon to find a restroom, and was told that as we were driving through the heroin capital of New Mexico we would not be stopping.

Finally we arrived at our base for the weekend, La Posada de Santa Fe, with shredded nerves, a dead Chevvy, and a rather unusual chauffeur, but the Doorman was obviously impressed as he greeted me with high fives for the rest of the weekend.

If you are not being driven to Santa Fe in a tow-truck make time to visit the Bandelier National Monument, where you can climb up ladders and peer into the 12th century adobe cliff dwellings, and head further north to the bridge over the Rio Grande for the big Wow factor.

Stuck in Santa Fe for a few days at the pueblo style La Posada, 5 minutes from the town centre, oh what a chore. 100 degrees, loungers around the azure pool and friendly staff on hand to bring you iced water with fresh lemons. There is a spa with every kind of beauty treatment available, a harpist on the terrace where they serve excellent margaritas and delicious food, and of course beautiful rooms with stunning bathrooms featuring showers big enough to live comfortably in….I even did a yoga class…. By the end of a long weekend I was recovered enough to take on another of my fears. Snakes. Rattlesnakes to be precise.

But before we go there, I have to say I believe Santa Fe is almost perfect in every way. For the freshest food check out the Saturday market, for the arts take stunning Canyon Road, open even when the doors are closed as 90 percent of it is an outdoor gallery not to be missed. Foodies should try the award winning ‘Compound’ off Canyon Road for lunch or dinner, but beware, there is a dress code, and for music get up early on Sunday morning for classical recitals, jazz or Spanish guitar in the town square. Then take a rickshaw ride home after having lost yourself in the labyrinth of adobe shops, cafes and galleries. Most memorable for me was the Georgia O’Keeffe gallery, and a moment of pure joy when it fully hit me that for the first time in 23 years I had left all my children at home in Windsor, and I could wander those wonderful art galleries, streets and shops until nightfall without anyone to say “can we go now, or I’m bored”.

Good hotels in Santa Fe don’t come cheap, averaging $250 a night not including breakfast, plus a $30 resort tax per person, chargeable every day. But I would go back in a heartbeat, in fact if you see me and my eyes are closed, that’s where I am.

Albuquerque, and another day another Chevvy, Hertz car rental really raised the bar, I thought we would never be allowed to hire another car ever again and certainly didn’t expect the stunning white Camaro my travel partner somehow acquired.

The old town of Albuquerque is a little like Santa Fe, slightly less expensive and suffering more from shop closures during these hard times. We were fortunate to catch members of a Native American Indian tribe dancing in full costume in the town square. I was secretly hoping it would be too late to visit the Rattlesnake museum, surely curing two phobias in one holiday is enough? Nope, we were going in there, and I am glad I did. At first, every time something brushed against my legs I leapt six feet in the air, but none of the snakes had escaped, and I was able to observe their disinterest in me from very close quarters without feeling the urge to run, in fact I felt quite sorry for them. I decided that rattlesnakes are actually the best kind of poisonous snakes because at least they warn you when you are too close.

October is probably the most vibrant time to visit Albuquerque as the town hosts the International Balloon Fiesta the first full week of the month for 9 days. Each weekend of the fiesta 600 brightly coloured hot air balloons take to the skies together. Because of those clear blue skies, predictable winds, and the mild temperatures of Albuquerque you can book a Balloon ride there all year round.

From Albuquerque through Gallup where I think they must bus tourists in for the hideously overpriced and non negotiable gift shops. Gallup is the first town I called at where the few people milling about looked genuinely miserable. I did manage to get a vintage Texan Cowboy hat for $5 though so it wasn’t all bad.

Arizona

Arizona appears with huge orange hills and caves, and warnings about scorpions and snakes…pah…

The Trading Posts are ok for souvenirs or sweets but the toilets (restrooms) are uniformly diabolical.

Next stop Winslow, Arizona, where there is much made of the reference to the town in the Eagles’ song “Take It Easy”. Stock up on water at the General Store as Route 66 enters the Painted Desert from here, and the Visitor Centre WILL have run out of drinking water. There are some fairly easy and stunningly beautiful hikes through the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest, not to be missed.

Passing through Winona, turn off here if ginormous meteor craters are your thing, the desert recedes and the pines take over as you get closer to Flagstaff. It’s worth finding the pretty, bohemian old town and staying for supper.

We headed 20 miles out of town, deep into the pines for the three bedroom Shooting Star Inn that Tom, the owner, built himself. We arrived in pitch dark and were welcomed by flashlight. Tom is a musician, and has a recording studio on the mezzanine level of the Inn, there is music playing all the time, but astronomy is clearly a huge passion too and later Tom gave us an amazing tour of the night sky from his telescope. I saw Saturn, complete with rings, a nebula of multi-coloured lights and explored the surface of the Moon. In the morning, after the best nights sleep since the start of the trip, I woke up to prairie dogs and rabbits outside my window, the smell of the pines, a beautiful home cooked breakfast and through another telescope we watched solar flares. A truly wonderful experience.

Something happened in those Arizona pines, and I understood for the first time that I was not taking a journey, it was taking me. I don’t even feel like a complete heel for turning my back on my old friend Route 66, in fact 66 made me go, and told me that to leave a trip unfinished means you still have something to come back for.

It was our intention to head to California after visiting the waterfalls near the Havasupai reservation. It’s an 8 hour hike down to the travertine falls, a stay overnight in the Lodge there and a harder hike back up early the next day, but America was having a record-breaking heatwave and I had struggled with an easy trek through the Painted Desert. I didn’t so much chicken out as take advice from a well meaning resident. I won’t repeat exactly what he said, but the thought of having my sunken dehydrated eyeballs pecked out by vultures whilst still alive didn’t appeal….Strangely Death Valley sounded more welcoming. So we turned right, and kept on going.

You just can’t miss the Grand Canyon, and any description I might give couldn’t begin to do it justice. It’s so vast you can see the curvature of the earth. The walk along the South Rim is magnificent and I am so over my fear of heights that I found a tree on a ledge to climb. I came across overawed Monks clutching ipads, an Italian family 50 strong celebrating a wedding with a giant picnic, and watched Hopi Indians dancing.

It’s very hard to drag yourself on from here, what could possibly top the Grand Canyon? Eventually I did and found another lovely surprise. A casual detour down to the Hoover Dam at dusk to turned out to be an incredible drive. The dam is one of those rare achievements that could just have looked industrial but is in fact quite beautiful, and now I know how Las Vegas powers all those lights.

Las Vegas

We had a room at the Tropicana in Vegas that night and I had heard the drinks are free. Thank goodness they weren’t, my hotel room was on a definite slope, and I became more aggressive with every Margarita.

Within five minutes of walking the ‘Strip’ I met Elvis. Our conversation went something like this…

Me:- “Elvis ! I’m so glad to hear rumours of your death were exaggerated” (I apologise for this.)

Elvis:- What’s a pretty little English lady like yourself doing in Vegas ? …(groan)

Just then Lou Reed walked over and I said “Wow, Lou Reed, I love your music, great to meet you”..

Lou:- “Er actually I’m David Bowie but it’s funny you should mention Lou Reed because I met him on the strip last week and he thought I was Iggy Pop.”

Elvis:-”We notice your friend there is taking pictures, this is what we do, we let you take photos with us, for tips”

Me, turning to David Bowie:-”I have a tip for you, you should be Lou Reed”…

That went as well as could be expected.

Leaving Las Vegas, with the feeling the town could spontaneously combust at any moment, we were the only people up at dawn and it was already 100 degrees.

Badwater, the salt flat in Death Valley is 85 meters below sea level. According to our car the temperature was 138 degrees outside, and to my disbelief I could see people actually jogging across the dry lake and back. Opening the car door was like stepping into an oven. I managed only a few minutes outside, escaping back to the relative cool of the car before my heart gave out and my skin fell off… and then the air conditioning failed. On the menu at the nearby Furnace Creek Resort is “Desert Roasted Chicken”. I expect it happened while he was crossing the road…..

The only way to deal with the relentless heat is to keep moving, quite fast. Driving Death Valley, up around the narrow bends of the Artists Palette, into the mountains that look like giant scoops of pistachio, vanilla and strawberry ice cream turned out to be the most fun you can have behind the wheel of a sports car.

A night in magical Mammoth via an insanely long road with mountains to the left all the way, one lone pine on the right, and The Devils Postpile at the end of it. I was thrilled when we pitched up at the gorgeous and glamorous Westin Monache Resort, where a hotel room is more like an elegant apartment. As well as all you would expect from a high end hotel my room had a lounge area with a fireplace and leather sofas, a beautifully appointed kitchen, and a large velvet window-seat overlooking the pool and the pines… it was also extremely reasonably priced as we were so late we had missed the ski season. The State of Mammoth Lakes have just declared themselves bankrupt, a very sad situation as Mammoth is a fantastic place for a summer break too. It averages 75 degrees of clean mountain air June, July and August, and as well as walking the alpine meadows you can go cycling, canoeing or horse riding. Mammoth has a comfortable small town feel with casual lively pizza places and nice shops, friendly people and spectacular driving with panoramic views. It’s also only 30 minutes from Yosemite through the stunning Tioga Pass (open for the summer months) so could easily serve as a base to do Yosemite, especially as reservations on the campsites or in the hotels there are impossible to get unless you’re booked in at least a year ahead.

A day well spent in Yosemite, climbing one of the falls, spotting bears and deer, hiring bikes (or horses). I could easily spend a month in this utterly splendid National Park, it has it all, great mountains, glaciers and canyons, beautiful waterfalls, heaps of wildlife, sparkling lakes and meandering rivers, glorious views, winding roads and giant sequoia. Lucky America.

It was a bitter contrast between the beauty of Yosemite and the night spent in a motel near Modesto where the only building with lights was the state penitentiary and the road signs all said “Do Not Pick Up Hitchikers.” Even Dennys’ the family restaurant looked more like the set of a Tarantino movie.

Freeway service areas nearly always have motels with rooms available. Several Motel chains are consistently clean and good, if basic. The best way to tell is as follows :- If they have a bar in the lobby with sport on all ten tv’s it will be awful. If the lobby smells of sweat, burning or that mornings breakfast, or the carpet is sticking to your shoes, get out of there fast. The newest motels are predictably better than the older ones, a quick look at exterior paintwork and windows verifies which are which, saving embarrassing about-turns in the lobby.

Thankfully though, what those freeway motels lack in glamour they usually make up for in breakfast which many of the more upmarket hotels don’t serve as standard. I discovered a waffle iron and indulged in hot fresh baked waffles with syrup, huevos rancheros, sausages, very crispy bacon and strange scones called English Muffins.

California

If you’re going to San Francisco.. be sure to visit Boudin for the excellent clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl, for desert a hot chocolate fudge sundae from Ghirardelli ….follow the fishy smell to Pier 39 for Seals and shopping, drive down loopy Lombard Street or take a cable car up, or more terrifyingly down, Nob Hill. Hold on tight and try not to think about the hand operated braking system. Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, Bison in Golden Gate Park, Haight Street, once home for the likes of the Grateful Dead and Graham Nash, and the ’67 summer of love. San Francisco is just too cool.

We picked up California 1, another road I have dreamed of driving, on the Golden Gate Bridge. The reality is a rush hour negotiation nightmare in a heavy sea fog, but only for a short distance.

Otherwise known as the Pacific Highway, the end of which I never wanted to reach, California 1, which occasionally becomes highway 101, is breathtakingly scenic. We head south toward the Big Sur region, and after lunch in Palo Alto, rubbing shoulders with the highly educated, an evening in Carmel.

All the way from Chicago to California through a blistering heatwave, I get to the beach in Carmel hoping for a sunset to die for and it’s raining. It’s a very pretty beach though. Carmel has a Cotswold village feel to it, with quaint old fashioned B&Bs, intimate bars and restaurants, short manicured streets, planters artfully overflowing with bougainvillea, fairy lights guiding you to tucked away courtyards which beg to be explored, and everyone I pass seems to have a small dog or two with them. In fact everything seems to have shrunk, from my ability to be able to afford anything, to the car parking spaces and the low rise buildings. Eventually it will all fit on to the front of a box of chocolates, and very nice it will look indeed.

By the time I reached LAX I simply didn’t want to go back to normal life I had covered more than 4000 miles of sometimes rocky, dangerous, busy and noisy, but mostly completely gorgeous, dusty, empty, endless American road. We had wrecked the dream car, met many kind, honest and friendly people, eaten some of the best food I have ever tasted, conquered all my phobias and seen such extremes of devastation and beauty, poverty and abundance that I believe I found the real America…..and I would have liked nothing better than to just keep on driving it….

by Vanessa Greenwood

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