Sunday, 30 October 2011

Day 210: Sailing from San Diego

OK - that's it!  No more United States ((except for Hawaii)!! Once you've seen the traffic in the LA basin, you don't need anymore!  This is the last of San Diego as we move out of the harbour.  The only thing of note that we did here is spend 4 hours trying to buy toiletries!  The picture below is our pilot boat standing off:

The Zaandam is pretty much like the Queen Mary II only a lot smaller.  We have a cabin with a window on the lowest deck.  You can kind of sit on the windowsill just above the waves and watch the sunset.  Shortly after taking this photo I was sipping a glass of wine and watching dolphins play in the bow wave just below me.  That's more like it!

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Day 207: Las Vegas

We made it to Las Vegas at sunset, and the first thing we learned is that the hotels here are very large and very filled with casinos.  Well, actually, I guess Mike knew that already.  It is a long, long way from where we parked the van to our room on the 35th floor, and we are supposed to be repacking!  Everything here is set up to encourage you to spend lots of money in the Casino, so most other things are very inexpensive, but a lot of facilities like the pool and the fitness room shut down at 6pm, so people don't get distracted.  Then they start serving very cheap alcohol so that you can lose your inhibitions. 

Fake New York
I had my first experience of an all-you-can-eat American buffet, for free.  In fact, neither Mike nor I had to pay:  We did pay seventeen dollars for Antonia who ate next to nothing.  It's easy to see how people can get overweight on stuff like this.  Mike and I had five-course dinners, except I think he may have had five desserts as well.  Antonia had candyfloss for dessert. That would explain why we spent most of the next day mooching around the pool and in the hot tub.


The real reason for being here was to look at the architectural excesses of the strip.  My favorite is the shopping mall that looks like Venice, though the model of New York complete with roller coaster is pretty cool too. 

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Day 206: Zion National Park


Zion is one of the places where I could easily have spent more time.  It is at a pretty low altitude, and so warm that there were even mosquitoes in the campground.  This is a very good time to visit: you get red rocks, blue sky, and yellow cottonwood trees that haven't quite lost their leaves yet.  The shuttle had another four days to run, and private car traffic into the canyon is still banned, so it was not a madhouse.  That snow that was forecast for Bryce started falling on us as rain just as soon as we got settled down for the night.  The temperature had dropped by quite a lot of degrees by the morning but it was still kind of OK.

Fall droplets
We took the shuttle ride and a short hike, but then because we were pushed for time, we split up.  Mike went off to do photography on the east road into the park and I went to be with Antonia while she finished her junior ranger book.  This is Antonia's last park. We think she has done about 17 Junior Ranger programs and been to a couple of parks where we didn't do one.  This is her last National Park.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Day 205: Bryce Canyon

Unbelievably, Bryce Canyon is even higher up than the Grand Canyon.  It was going to get very cold on Monday night and snow on Tuesday night.  I forced poor Mike to check into a campsite where we could have an electric hookup and run our little electric heater.  To make matters worse, we got use of tbe swimming pool and hot tub at the hotel next door thrown in. Poor, poor Mike... I spent a very pleasant night being clean and warm plus I was able to do the breakfast washing up indoors and using hot water!!!

But we were not there for these creature comforts.  Bryce canyon is not a canyon at all, but an eroded plateau full of these things called hoodoos.  We went to a geology talk where the lady explained how to make them.  Start with some really impure, crumbly rock, subject it to stresses from two separate faults so that it cracks in a checkerboard pattern, then raise it to just the right altitude to get 200 freeze-thaw cycles per year.  That means we had no chance of sleeping at temperatures above 0C in October.

We spent the day looking at the hoodoos from the top and the bottom.  We left in the afternoon with just enough time to reach Zion national park before dark.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Day 204: Glen Canyon Dam

Rafts below Glen Canyon dam on the Colorado River
 On our rides back and forth across Navaho country, we noticed a pretty impressive power station facility.  Between Tuba City and Kayenta is what looks like an enormous grain tower.  It has a conveyor that crosses the road on a bridge and goes all the way to the top like a giant slide.  On the other side the conveyor bumps over at least two hills, and who knows how far it goes.  From the conveyor is an electric railway that carries 80 miles to Lake Powell where the generator is.  We kind of pieced this whole story together from seeing first the railway, then the coal tower and conveyor, then the three enormous chimneys of the generator.  This system produces huge amounts of electricity and supplies Phoenix, LA and other large cities.

The dam wall
The Glen Canyon hydroelectric dam is a smaller installation, but one you can visit!  I don't have to tell you too much about it since we have photographs. I was really glad that it coincided with a good lunch spot because we were able to see beautiful Lake Powell behind the dam, tour the dam, and see the skeleton of a cool feathered dinosaur they found as they were carving it out.  Now we are back in Utah, and getting really confused with all the time changes.  Utah does winter time, but Arizona has decided not to bother, so we changed three times in the last 24 hours.

Lake Powell behind the dam - it's very odd to see a blue lake in such and arid environment.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Day 203: Monument Valley

A formation near Monument Valley
Our destination today was Monument Valley which Mike had always wanted to visit.  It has two amazing rock formation that have appeared in a whole lot of films.  It is on Navaho tribal land and they have organised a park that works a bit like a National Park: same kind of visitor centre, same kind of facilities, but of course our National Park pass didn't work.  Anyway, we got to do this amazing 17 mile drive over rough dusty roads and admire the rocks that you can see here. 

The famous mittens

It was very nearly sunset by the time we finished so we decided to camp just over the road in Goulding.  By the time we had the campsite paid for, we realised we were just over the border from Arizona, in Utah.  It was 7.45, not 6.45 and we had better go find some dinner.  So we didn't even choose a camping spot, we went straight to a restaurant, with the aim of trying Native American food.  It seems like Indian taco is the real big thing in Indian territory.  At the contemporary art museum in Santa Fe, they even had a whole movie dedicated to Indian taco.  It is a taco shell, with beef chilli (usually), topped with cheese and chopped lettuce, onion and tomato.  We had also discovered fried bread in Taos.  This is where you take ordinary bread dough and deep fry it.  It comes up as an enormous puffy disk that is delicious, and not very good for you.  Combine these two things and you get what this restaurant was offering as Navaho taco.  If you don't feel like deep-frying bread dough, you can get a similar effect with Yorkshire pudding, henceforth to be known as the Yorkshire taco.

A hand looking for its mittens?

Days 200 to 203: Grand Canyon

Sunset at Grand Canyon
We spent Friday getting really bad hiking advice from a park ranger, buying a trail guide for South Kaibab trail, watching the park movie and hanging around taking photographs of the Grand Canyon.  We also went to a very interesting evening program talk by a photojournalist Stan Honda, who is trying out night sky photography in his spare time.  He gave us lots of ideas.

So why was the ranger's hiking advice bad?  Basically, if someone asks them for hiking advice they assume that person has never hiked before, has just arrived at this altitude from sea level and that it is the middle of August.  They have 5 million visitors a year and they have to rescue 250 of them, so they would like to reduce that statistic by encouraging everyone to 'look, don't touch'.  They dissuaded us from going to Indian Gardens which would have been a good day hike for us, where we could have mooched around in the shade and taken our time.  Instead they encouraged us into a poxy stroll along part of South Kaibab trail where you hardly even get into the canyon at all.  In the end, my conclusion is, if you have to ask a ranger for hiking advice you shouldn't be hiking in the canyon!  The National Parks are a bit ridiculous in what they choose to call day hikes at the best of times.  I've noticed that if anything goes uphill at all, and if it's longer than 2 miles, they call it strenuous.  I would call what I did strenuous, but not exhausting (see below).

We were down there somewhere!
We all managed to get on South Kaibab trail by 7am the next day.  I could have wished we had been about an hour earlier which is when it just starts to get light.  Mike and Antonia went to Skeleton Point, which is a 10km round trip for a 610m elevation gain.  It took them 5 hours, mooching along in the cool, and often in the shade.  I went to Panorama Point, which is about a 16km round trip for a 1000m elevation gain.  At that point I was only 450 m and a couple of km above the river, but I didn't try to go all the way to the end.  I figured it would add 3 hours to my hike and I was out of radio contact with Mike and Antonia by that time, so we couldn't plan anything.  In the end, I got back to the top at 1pm about 40 minutes after they did, having done my walk in 5 hours.  I didn't take my camera, and I did take more food and water than I needed, so all the photos here are from other days.  Obviously, getting to the river and back in a day would have been quite feasible for me, though maybe not for Antonia.  Another time, I would go down South Kaibab, starting an hour earlier, and up Bright Angel trail, which is supposed to be a bit shadier.  October seems like an ideal month for hiking in the canyon.  It really isn't too warm, nor too cold either, at least in the daytime.

The Colorado River from the Watchtower

We spent the afternoon doing laundry, having showers (at great expense) and cooking a nice dinner, so at least we made good use of our time after our 'half-day hike'.  Mike even made a nice campfire out of bits of old firewood he collected from all the empty fire pits.  This was good, because it is freezing cold here at night.  Despite the vegetation looking Mediterranean, we are at 2000m above sea level in October!!  It is not getting down to freezing point, but it is well below 10C.


We left Grand Canyon park slowly on Sunday, stopping to take lots of pictures.  The most enjoyable thing was the surprise discovery of the watchtower at the end of the desert view drive.  This is really an architectural folly, built just to amuse visitors to the canyon, but it is beautiful.  It was designed with reference to south-western Indian watchtowers and is painted all over inside with Indian inspired murals.

Ceiling mural

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Days 199 & 200: The Buttes resort in Phoenix

The pool by moonlight (at least that's what it looks like)
Mike took us to stay in this cool hotel in Phoenix that looks like something out of a James Bond movie.  It's a Marriott Resort hotel called the Buttes, and fortunately, we did not have to pay full price. Mike remembered that he had some points with them from a business trip he took to Phoenix 20 years ago to explain to someone how to use a computer mouse properly.  Mike wanted to be here to see some people so he was kind of busy, but Antonia and I had a great time hanging out in and by the pool, the hot tubs, the gym (aaah, the gym!).  We even went to the restaurant by ourselves.  The next day we went to see Mike's step-grandmother who lives in special apartments for elderly people.  They are pretty nearly as good as the hotel resort.  We had a nice time visiting with her, but unfortunately, we hung around there so long that we arrived at the Grand Canyon campground nearer ten o'clock than anything else.  There is no way we are doing a big hike tomorrow, so instead we are mooching around and casing the joint and all that kind of stuff.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Day 198: Petrified Forest National Park

Painted Desert

Petrified forest is one of the best national parks even if they do close early to make sure that nobody steals a piece of 250 million year old tree during the night.  It's really impressive to walk through the site of a huge forest that's been turned to stone, but the park has a lot of other things as well: a beautiful adobe inn that was constructed in the Depression and only used for a few years, the Painted Desert which is desert in more colours than a paintbox, ancient pueblos, including one made of petrified wood, and a fossil museum.

This is pretty much all that's left of Route 66 around here.
...don't even think about it, or else...
...this might happen to you!
Of course, you'd need a truck to get that lot away.
Petrified forest is one of the few parks where you can't camp in case you take advantage of the opportunity to steal the trees (they really have a thing about this), so we had to go to a KOA. This is a big chain of campgrounds across the US.  They turn out to be pretty nice because they have things like a children's playground, heated shower rooms, a dinner stand that did fairly reasonable food....  nicer than a National Park campground, actually, at twice the price!

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Day 196: Kiwi birthday cakes

Antonia had kiwi cakes for her birthday.  They are eating larvae (jelly beans) because that's what kiwis eat.  Strangely enough, the jelly beans in that container really did disappear somewhere and I didn't get a single one!

Actually, we did nothing much but eat today.  We went for New Mexican breakfast at the Tecolote cafe at the end of our street.  New Mexican breakfast is eggs and potatoes and stuff like that, but covered in red and green chilli sauce.

Then we did nothing but mooch all day.

Then we had artichoke petals, pizza and kiwi cakes for supper with the lady who owns the house we're staying in.  We had a very nice evening, especially because it's the first time we've had someone over to dinner for a while!

Friday, 14 October 2011

Day 194: Pino Trail

Yesterday, we went on our first really long hike in ages. Somehow, the National Parks just don't seem to lend themselves to hikes of the right length.  I need the right amount of distance and/or climbing and natural beauty, otherwise nothing at all happens with my endorphin levels.  Yesterday, I did just fine on endorphins, and today I am completely dead, aching all over, and needing an afternoon nap.  Antonia fell asleep as soon as we got back in the house, then woke me up at 3am claiming she couldn't sleep and hadn't had dinner, etc...  Oh well!

First things first, yesterday was also a good day for adrenaline, because it is the day Antonia actually spotted a wild bear.  As everyone knows by now, it's always Antonia...  She said it was about 20 metres off the path, and that it looked towards us, then scrambled off into the woods.  Apparently, it had big claws, brown fur, and would have been one and a half times the size of Mike if it stood up.  She was incredibly excited, well she described herself as 'alarmed', which is very Antonia as vocabulary goes.  I was alarmed too, and encouraged her to keep talking at the top of her voice all the way back to the car park.  I was glad that a) she saw this bear towards the end of our walk and b) she saw it before it started to get really dark as it was when we got back to the car.

Apart from that the hike was fantastic, very, very beautiful and surprisingly autumnal.  The higher up the mountain we got the more trees there were changing colour.  We were climbing up over Albuquerque, with a kind of telepherique way off to one side, and an immense view in both directions once we got to the crest.  So although it looks nothing like Grenoble, it's the same general layout.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Day 193: Balloon Ride

By Antonia:
Today, Thursday, Daddy and I woke up at 5 AM and drove to Albuquerque to get on a hot air balloon. We watched the balloon become bigger and bigger.  We made a few videos of it.  When it was ready we got in and watched as the scenery got farther and farther away.  We stayed on one side of a pretty river called the Rio Grande and then came to the other side.  The balloon driver steered the balloon two feet away from the water.  When we landed on a place near the road the crew which followed us did up the balloon.  It was customary after a balloon flight to have champagne (I had orange juice).  The crew drove us to the original take off spot and we drove home. 

Actually, she forgot to mention that this was the second attempt at getting up at 5am and driving for one hour to try to get a balloon ride.  The first day was just too windy for them to go up.  I'm glad they made it at last because this was her tenth birthday treat.  I think this is a pretty amazing thing to have done by ten years old.  The whole family is now recovering from far too many late nights and early mornings chasing round after balloons!

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Day 192: New Mexico Museum of Art

Indios, by Ray Martin Abeyta
New Mexico isn't all about Georgia O'Keefe.  Santa Fe is full of art museums and galleries, most of them in amazingly beautiful buildings. This is my favourite painting from the exhibition at the New Mexico Museum of Art called How The West Is One.   Paintings in this exhibition are mostly about two things: changing visions of the interaction between Native and European Americans and the beauty of the landscape.  Well, there is also a little section on the development of nuclear weaponry, which happened not far from here.  What a place!

Anyway, this painting, obviously, is about the confusion of Christopher Columbus who wasn't quite sure where he had arrived when he started dishing out the name 'Indian', even though it seems to have stuck.  What I really like about this painting, other than its extreme artifice is the optical effect of the two layers of eyes on the Indian on the left.  My brain just didn't know what to do with it, and I'm so used to optical illusions these days, that not many of them phase me.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Day 191: Bandelier National Monument

Inside a cave dwelling
Today, we went to see villages even older than medieval.  Bandelier National Monument has a combination of cliff dwellings, petroglyphs and a village in the floor of the canyon that was a circle of buildings going up to two levels with a single entrance facing towards the sunrise on the winter solstice!  It's a really interesting place to visit, though unfortunately we couldn't hike at the moment.  Just this year, there was a serious fire within the park, followed by flooding.  Not only are most of the trails closed, but visitors have to park in the nearby town of White Rock and take a shuttle bus.  Considering how un-American that is, it's amazing how much everyone enjoys it.  It's a wonder they don't do it more often, although perhaps it costs the National Parks a bit of money.

The circular village
It's really lucky that the fire and flood damage didn't seem to have caused too much destruction at the archaeological site, or maybe they just cleaned it up first.  At any rate, this was a really nice place to spend an afternoon, and, as Antonia has to do her Junior Ranger badge or course, we were there for ages, just basking in the sun.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Days 188 & 189: Balloon Fiesta, Albuquerque

This weekend, we attended the Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We dropped by twice, once on Saturday night to see the "glow" and again on Sunday morning to see the final mass launch.

During the glow, they inflate the balloons fire them up simultaneously several times over the course of an hour or so.

On Sunday morning at about 7am, over the course of about an hour or so, they launched about 300 baloons.

Quite an array of balloons. Most of them the standard shape you see in the above photo. There were some very impressive shapes like Darth Vadar heads, stage coaches, and bumble bees.

The place was pretty crowded. We were seriously afraid we wouldn't be able to park but both times we arrived, we sat in a queue for maybe a half hour but eventually arrived at a parking spot very close to the entrance. Parking was $10. Entrance was $6 for adults, free for kids 12 and under. So both days cost us $22 each day.

The pilots get a pretty good deal. I understood the Fiesta charges them $150 to enter and for that, they give them all the gas they need to fly which is like $100 per flight and they fly maybe 10 times!

Antonia and I really wanted to try and see if someone would take us up but the way it works is you really need to work on one of their ground crews, sometimes several years in a row to get that chance. We could have bought a ride but I wasn't about to lay out $1,200 for the 3 of us!

Friday, 7 October 2011

Day 187: Taos Pueblo

You can visit medieval villages in the United States and this one is even listed as a World Heritage site.  It's called Taos Pueblo, the home of the Red Willow tribe. The village has two multi-story blocks of homes separated by a wide public space with the river running through it.  The structure of the tallest blocks is at least a thousand years old, though, being adobe, it's been repaired on an ongoing basis.  In the last four hundred years, contact with the Spaniards then the Americans brought a lot of changes.  There is an old church, now ruined, and a new church which is still over 150 years old.  Outdoor ovens called hornos are scattered around the village, and are also a Spanish borrowing, and they do look pretty familiar from Europe.  They contrast with the large wooden drying racks, the system for which dates back to pre-Spanish times. The stacked houses now have front doors, often painted in bright colours, but originally, access was through the roof.  It reminds me very much of Catal Hayuk in that respect, and a few other places.  It's an interesting reminder that there isn't a single village model. The tribe keep their many aspects of their traditional spiritual and social life separate from outsiders, so while the churches are prominent, it isn't possible to see the kivas.  These are underground rooms for religious and administrative meetings.

A relatively small number of people live in Taos Pueblo now, probably partly because of the decision to keep modern utilities out.  There are more visitors here than Indians and a whole load of systems for keeping us under some semblance of control.  Meanwhile the tribe has quite a lot of other land.  Most people live in modern houses closer to Taos, and there is a very large wilderness area where only tribal members are allowed.  The adobe houses in the pueblo can be lit by gas lamps and heated with wood burning open hearths.  These facilities were quite important to us on our visit because it was dark, gloomy, and so cold it felt like it might snow.  There are actually quite a lot of houses that are open to the public, selling crafts or food.  We weren't in the market for crafts but we did buy some blueberry pie, and some of the famous fried bread.  It is famous, because the craft shops are full of signs saying things like 'No fried bread in here!", "Keep your icky fried bread papers to yourself".  With the fried bread lady's reputation preceding her like that, how could we resist when we eventually found her shop!  I had never imagined that ordinary bread dough would expand quite the way this did when deep fried in oil. Then we covered it in sugar powder and cinnamon, and got all icky.  Then we turned out noses up at the local dogs who suddenly decided we were interesting and went to visit the church.  Haha, we didn't touch anything though.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Day 186: Georgia O'Keefe Museum

Now for a completely different museum, dedicated to Georgia O'Keefe. It's the first time I saw any of her paintings in real life.   I just find them very visually appealing, especially when there are colours bleeding into whites or blacks as in the one above.  It's the kind of art that I like to look at and don't find it easy to say much about.  I have a feeling that O'Keefe was the same way, because although they have quotes from her all over the walls, they say things like "Colour is really important to me".

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Day 185: Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

The sculpture garden, with Antonia at the far right looking like a sculpture!
 Blogging is back!  So, first of all what is Santa Fe like.  Well, very pretty.  I have never seen so many adobe houses altogether in one place.  The town centre is more like a European town with a central park, shops full of expensive clothes that actually came from France and roof terrace cafes.  There is a real public life here with people just hanging around in the centre.  Unfortunately, there is a real public life on the more outlying streets as well.  During the week I've been here on my own, I've been subjected to more honking by cars, catcalls and more or less indecent approaches by random men than ever in my life.  Including one really bad incident, where I was threatening the guy with the police before he backed off.  What is wrong with these people?!  I thought I was safe now that I'm in my 40s and have unusually white hair. Obviously, all this will die down a bit with Mike here.

Today we went to the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, which is contemporary art made by members of American Indian tribes (that explanation might be necessary for any non-Americans out there).  We all really enjoyed the exhibitions which were extremely varied, with one installation, galleries of painting and photography, a small sculpture garden, and a series of films.  I think we perhaps enjoyed these the most, though a lot of the rest was very good as well.  A lot of the art on display is not only by Native Americans but addresses things that are central to the Native American experience.  A large chunk of that has to do with the fact that, non only did the Indian tribes lose their battles and their land against the United States and European Americans, but they are expected to identify as US citizens.  This unfortunately includes a presentation of US history and culture in which they're depicted to themselves as outsiders, and expected to celebrate their own defeat.  America as a state, conversely has a need to celebrate its history that we don't see so much in Europe. 

One of the most interesting movies was a documentary, about a really sad standoff between Native and Italian Americans over the Columbus day parade in Denver.  Columbus day is a national holiday, but the whole figure of Columbus is symbolic of the start of the catastrophe to many Native Americans. They don't really think he's a reason to party (and I have to say that, all other considerations aside, his behaviour towards the people he found in the Caribbean was,... well, words fail me).  On the other hand, the Italian Americans, at least in this film, seem to have taken Columbus to their hearts.  The Columbus Day parade allows them to celebrate their rather difficult integration into US society, and to see their contributions as important right from the start, I guess.  It means a lot to some of them.  So, there is a big stand-off in the middle of the street.  There are also, as you can imagine, people of mixed ancestry coming down on various sides, and people of non-mixed ancestry not being on the side of the majority of their group.  Quite a mess. 

I also like the huge painting that was like a map of the US with incidents from American history that aren't so worthy of celebration either.  The installation was on a different theme and was a room with a central table piled high with donuts, cakes, etc.  The whole thing was made to look like solid sugar and it was called the Last Supper.  This is a reference to the dietary problems that seem to be affecting American society as a whole, but I guess each group has a slightly different take on it.