Monday, August 31, 2009

They used to test bombs out here...

...visitors would flock to Las Vegas and crowd the cheap motel rooftops and fancy hotel bars to witness the distant glowing fireballs rising up above the black rock Nevada horizon. Drinking chilled beer in the desert sun, burning themselves lobster red and then moving indoors to gamble their cash away and fund the growing city.
Its not really that exciting anymore, the horizon now consists of endless lofty hotels and apartments, dull and awash with the desert dust during the day but bursting into an amazing array of lit wonders, spires, rollercoasters, billboards, flashing signs, neons, sweeping spotlights and glitter during the night.

We're staying on "the strip" the most expensive couple of miles of real estate this side of manhatten island, and everyone is trying to get your attention, or to get you to stay in a different manner - from the faux Camelot of "Excalibur" and its ye olde carnival themed cheap all you can eat buffet under flourescent lights, to the MGM grand with its lurid green yet alluring outer walls visible probably from Mars the place is so big, to the lush and flower filled Italian stylings of the very welcoming Belagio and its amazing water fountains set to lights and music... all the way down to the glittering McDonalds sign in a very Vegas style and the hundrens of "card men" on the street who hand out the business cards of working girls (photos included!) with a flick and a wink and a "she can be with you in 20 minutes"... the cards litter the street in the morning, the "tastefully" positioned stars on the nude models doing little to allay our worring about what the girls might ask if they see them - thankfully they remain oblivios, and I, holding Lucy's or Jammy hand dont have to fend them off like some single men I see do... Then theres M and M world, "Coke World", their cousins out the alley in back "coke world" and THOUSANDS of other two bit attractions with signs bigger than than my house.

Its a fun town though, theres not a lot to do but gamble, swim, take in a show, avoid the pimps or eat... we didn't take in any shows or gamble and the pimps avoided us thankfully - we did a lot of swimming and eating though! The buffets here are amazing value - with great and innovative food in many of them - it was our daily treat for lunch (being about 50% cheaper than dinner).

We tried five such buffets, and ranked them thusly:

1. Wynns Buffet - lots of small portions of some very classy foods, salmon, smoked trout, rare beef with caramelised onions and caper, cream and aniseed sauce (or something like that - it sounded better). STUNNING desserts...
2. Paris Village Buffet - every cliched type of French food the Americans could think of and then more... and actually very nice creme brulees
3. The Luxor Buffet - lots for the kids, wonderful piles of fresh fruit, and the locals must have loved it with heaps of pizza and burgers... why not just but them on the street though - oh thats right - because here you can eat like TWENTY!
4. The Tropicana - cheap and cheerful with tough carpet, flouro lights, a sizzler like salad bar but a certain "Canberra Club" faded glory style...
5. The Main Street Station Buffet... lots of steak... not much else... oh collard greens. And no, collard greens aren't worth trying...

The girls had a great lifestyle, eating fruit at the buffet and swimming the rest of the time... as there really wasn't much else to do - we did however -with one day to go discover THE absolute best way to spend your quarters in Vegas - my dream attraction, a real highlight of my holiday, a place I'll be working VERY hard to get back to - or find a similar place in Australia -it was truely wonderful - and I'll tell you about it later...






Thursday, August 27, 2009

The 5 percenters...

Still gasping for breath from the wonders of Antelope Canyon we drift back to our lodgings and head out for a swim in the warm waters of Lake Powell, a huge man made aquatic wonderland in the middle of the desert. I float in the warm water looking out at the parched rocks changing hues with the setting sun and think about the lost wonders fathoms under my feet in drowned canyons and rock formations.

The kids love splashing here though, and the air is warm and the water soothing so I don't think too much! It is good to be swimming again, stretching out, splashing in the mud and sand and watching the girls laugh and the water droplets light up against the blue sky and red earth.

From here we head to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon - but being the sadist that I am I can't just take the quickest path there... I've seen two National Monuments that look like fun outside of Flagstaff Arizona... Route 66 country. Painted Desert Country. Fossilised Forrest country. Its too attractive to pass up so we head briefly out of our way to to visit abandoned adobe castles in the high desert and a volcano that only a thousand years ago spewed forth the ash that allowed these desert castles to bloom like flowers for a short time. Now the volcano is dead, cold, quiet jagged lava flows and eddies of ash and pumice in the wind. The soil it fed has long been drained of nutrients and the people it fed long move don. Their homes sit now at the end of quiet box canyons and atop strategic hills waiting for their return but only we are there to see them today, stuck between the grand canyon, the city of Flagstaff to the west and the brilliantly coloured painted desert to the east. I'm not game to drag the family out into that (on this trip...)

After some lunch Flagstaff falls behind us and we wind through pine forests towards the south rim. I've heard its much more crowded, much more touristy than the north rim. And with good reason too. Its better.

The views are, well, like I expected of the Grand Canyon, and I expected a lot. You really can see forever here... and forever is *chock full* to the horizon with twists, turns, peaks piled on peaks, collapsed towers, flashes of green from hidden springs and space... ohhhh so much space! The sense of distance is palpable - its so damn BIG. We join the elite 5% club - those who venture beneath the rim. We hick switchback after switchback down the South Kaibab Pass (the Northern end is at the North Rim - 28 miles and 3 days hike away - thats why we didn't take the hike there!) After an hour of steep descent we reach "ooh-aaah point" and boy did we ooh-and-aaah! Its BIG down here, thousands of feet below us we can still see the path winding down, thousands of feet below that we can see the Colorado, green and slow and welcoming from this altitude (but a raging torrent down there with 3 of the worlds top ten rapids in its winding trail). Eagles swoop by - some two thousand feet below, hunting prey on the slopes. People just stop and stare, quietly taking it all in, only stopping to ask again and again for poor Lib to take their photo please... Its only after we get back and see our path winding down the side of the canyon from another viewpoint that we realise just how little we've scratched the surface of this place... what we thought was a mighty descent into the maw of the canyon was a minor toe-dipping excersice down the mile deep behemoth...

As evening approaches we race a coming summer storm eastwards to try and catch the sunset. We don't, but the power of the storm is immense and invigorating in sunsets place. It laces the sky with lightning and lashes the canyon rim with a deluge of cold rain... leaving the air cool and clear (but cloudy) after its passing.

For fun (and to avoid our damp campsite) we head into town and introduce the girls to the all American pastime of 10 pin bowling. They absolutely love it. What they dont love is the concept of it ending... tears aplenty - but pizza and ice-cream allay them for now... Next we head for Las Vegas, I'm a little sad to be seeing the last of the desert wilderness, from here on we leave the tent behind for a few weeks, I might miss it a bit, but we're all looking forward to having proper showers again and for the girls, the promise of a pool is all they need to drive them on...







Totally Radically Awesomely Toastally Gnarly

This wonderful phase has had limited use since I first heard it as a young teenage girl. Today I am able to say it once again as what we did in the Lake Powell area was TOTALLY RADICALLY AWESOMELY TOASTALLY GNARLY!!!!!! I'm not talking about the Rainbow Bridge national monument - we didn't get there (Mum and Dad we we were lucky to see that when we did as it now costs families hundreds of dollars to tour there). I'm not referring to exploring the 658 square kilometers of reservoir either (I'll leave that to Phil and his jetski). I'm talking about this..

Antelope Canyon

This is most amazing place I think I've ever been. A sandstone slot canyon formed gracefully by the elements. The girls walked through bare footed on the sandy floor stretching out their arms to try and touch both sides. Our eyes constantly darted around taking in all the different ways the sunlight played through crevices and on the curves of the rock. My mind went wild, it was so totally, radically, awesomely, toastally, gnarly in there.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Theres a change of pace...

The wind picks up in the middle of the night, whipping around us on the canyon floor and reminding me that I'm a light sleeper... as morning rolls around though the wind dies down, and a warm glow fills up the gorge from the top, the sun slowly melting down the rocks like molasses.

We pack away the tent and drive through towns with names like Hurricane, Kanab, Fredonia and Jacob Lake before topping out at 8000 feet on the northern rim of the grand canyon... its cooler up here. Its a change of pace, its quiet, more reserved, removed from the desert that surrounds it - like some elitist neighbour in the run down part of town. Its green, the elevation gives it an alpine feel, its rustic, the old hotels here were built in the railway heydays of the 30's replete with singing bellboys and evening talent shows from the summering college boys and girls who worked here in spats and starched collars and gingham dresses. This is where "The Shining" surely is in real life - it even closes in the winter with only a few caretakers and the only access by snow-mobile...

Our first real view of the canyon is even through the windows of the "sun room" here, age stained wooden handrails, leather couches, black and white photos of long gone visitors... The room is almost more interesting than the view - only due to the fact that a fire rages on the canyon wall some miles away and has filled our view with grey smudge... its still wonderful though - gazing down towards the Colorado river(though you cant quite see it from the hotel) through the haze - the miles and the millions of years to the bottom.

Of course we're not staying in the hotel - we reluctantly drive back to our allotted campsite to set up, wondering when we'll see the canyon again. The ranger at registration smiles at me when I check in:

"Wow... you have no idea..."

"Pardon? You mean our site - is it a good one?"

"Oh you'll see..."

Turns out we're practically hanging out over one of the side canyons, setting the pegs and lines as the setting sun fires everything into a pink glaze around us, the pines move above us in the breeze and I cook chili, beans and rice on the camp stove and the kids eat spagettios from their blue plastic bowls.The wind ominously picks up but thankfully retreats to just tickling the treetops for the night as we slumber on the edge of the chasm...

The girls take a morning hike with us to the lodge in the morning and we celebrate with hot chocolates, we spend the rest of the day exploring the nearby mesas, letting the girls play and gazing down at the huge dropoffs and generally being anxious about kids and cliffs!

I'm not sure what to make of the North Rim - its probably the most relaxing camp we've had - its like a resort - a lot to see and take in, but you can really kick back and just do that - theres no amazing hikes to be had (that we could do anyway - I'll elaborate later) and the views, while amazing had less impact on me than say Zion or Canyonlands... I await with baited breath how the South Rim develops... we'll be there soon...

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Crunchy Granola

As that old school philosopher Neil Diamond would yell in a wonderfully gravel voice "GOOD LORD!" Yep - holidays can be soooo much bloody fun its ridiculous... its even better when you share it with the kids and have a ball swanning around and in and under a river in the middle of the parched desert...

We're in Zion, in God's country... or at least the Mormons... or well, it used to be, but now its a National Park - and for a protestant boy like me good self it was encouraging to find that this little outpost of what was once Mormonism is now a wonderfully welcoming place with sun kissed mountains, deep dark canyons (and surprisingly for the desert) shady glades, hanging gardens from the cliffs, swamps and cool streams. Even more surprising is all the local religious names given to these places came from a good Baptist chap who wandered through on holidays some hundred years ago and just started hanging names on places... The Golden Throne, The Court of the Patriarchs, The Temple of Sacrifice - replete with blood red iron oxide stains streaming down its some 500m high white sandstone cliffs.


This is a wonderful little oasis away from the flat plains, we're camped out in the bottom of a magestic and scenic canyon carved into the landscape by the Virgin River like a plastic spoon through Jamila's half eaten and melting ice-cream sunday (I had to finish it for her - hey - I'm a nice guy).


I love cooking burgers as the sun sinks below the western rim and sets the eastern mountains on alight... I'd love it more if the wasps weren't so darn interested in the fat exploding out of these burger patties... The girls love being able to swim in the river only meters away, and also love debating over cactus or cactai (Lucy is very definate on whether a patch is singular or plural and loves telling us "Its one Cac-tuSS and lots of cacTAI!")

Its hot during the day - as it always is out here, but the cliffs block the sun early and EVEN BETTER theres a great river of all things to swim in, cooling the blood under the eaves of the cottonwoods and floating lazily downstream until you bump into some yelling group of bloody french tourists... bloody tourists.

Its hard as always with words to convey how COOL it is being here. The first night I sat on a crummy portable chair drinking some local brew and was struck by a large hole in the sky where the stars should be. "Julian you idiot" screamed my more intelligent inner monologue "Thats no hole in the sky its a... errrr.....wait on" mmm that beer was good... "Ahh thats it, a mountain, a bloody big one! Its just blocking the stars in a manner you're not used to!" I would have inner monologued more but I had to go and yell at some noisy French:

"Its past curfew - keep yer snail munching down our kids are trying to sleep!"

"But mon dieu! Ewer liddle chulrin - zay bee trying to eat zee snails!"

"TOUGH! AND SHUDDUP!"

We did some lovely hikes on out first day but the real highlight came on the second day as we headed up into the wild and remote (and horribly popular) river walk to the top end of the canyon. But we're not bothered by such little things as the end of the path - oh no - not us... we decided (along with pretty much everyone else) to just darn it all to heck and keep walking... off the end of the world and into the great unknown known as the narrows. The canyon narrows so much that the river actually fills it up: theres no paths where we're going Marty...

We slog through the water, gazing up in wonder at towering cliffs and sideways in annoyance at passing french. Its great here - you could walk all day in the water, its exciting and dangerous, cool, fast, slow, deep, shallow, forgiving and relentless all withing the space of just several... well hours, turns out what we thought would be a morning diversion ended up taking all day. But it was amazing, if you're ever this way you HAVE to see Zion and try the Narrows walk. The river is stunning, but the cut it has made in the landscape that towers hundred of meters RIGHT above you is humbling in a "I'm not humbled I'm bloody slogging along fine here just look at me go! WOOHOO!" type way...

Seeing how the river cuts the rock, and being within it at the same time is very rewarding, the girls absolutely loved it, and though Lucy did fall asleep and have to be carried out deadening my arm for days, I'd do it again in a flash. Its one of those real HEY THIS IS AWESOME type adventures that only reveals just how awesome it is at just the right moment - when you're right in it - loving it and wishing it would never end (and that Lucy would wake up - she's bloody heavy).


A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.........

Jue has mention how much there is to see in this pocket of the world. We can also add Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon and Cedar Breaks National Parks to that list. As we drive West from Canyonlands the terrain becomes more and more...well...just plain odd. It's almost possible to convince the girls we're on Mars or the moon.

At Capitol Reef, once again, we take turns to yell "COOOOO-WE" up into the cliffs. Jamila gains another Junior Ranger badge after completing a booklet of age appropriate activities and making a pledge in front of the witnessing Ranger that she will continue to learn and take care of the environment. This is a tremendous program for up to 12 year olds that we first found out about on an episode of Bindi the Jungle Girl. Each park has its' own unique activities and badge. We sight petroglyphs left by Ancestral Puebloans. At the historic house that was once owned by a polygamist - not unusual for around here, I buy myself a rhubarb and strawberry pie (yes it does taste as good as it sounds!)


From there, Bryce Canyon takes us to another planet. I'll let the pictures do the talking.


















Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Just like Daedalus planned...

Its almost as if we stand still now and this amazing landscape moves beneath us, showing us new vistas and marvels every day. Its hard to believe coming from Australia that there could be so much to see in such a relatively small area... mesa verde, monument valley, natural bridges, arches national park and now onto the poetically named "Island in the Sky" in the canyonlands National Park.

All these places are similar... Yes its just rock we're looking at mostly, and yes its just red mostly... yet from point to point on the map, with each park we progress through this red and this rock is put together in so many variations that its almost every material of every colour, built in the most grand fashion that the eye can hardly take it in on viewing, we constantly have to remind ourselves that what we're seeing is *real*, its here in front of us.. if I could brave the miles, if my feet could leave this viewpoint or this roadside stop and step onwards into that red wonderland I could, if I wanted just walk on out into into vastness before me and never stop.

Unless that is, its Canyonlands that happens to lie before me, the Island in the Sky. It would take a great deal of stupidity to venture out into that vista, firstly the incredible drop would surely kill you, and if not, then the untouched, winding morass of ragged ravines, crevasses and dusty rubble filled washed would turn any soul brave enough to venture in hopelessly around like Theseus with no string...

Theres not much walking to be done here unless you're very fit and very adventurous... much to the girls delight as we viewed a lot of this incredible world from the cool confines of the car... and even I had to admit that this was not the kind of place to strike out on some foolhardy trip from an unknown trailhead, this is harsh and very hot land.

Yet looking out upon it from the grand view brought a kind of peace that more than made up for the lack of physical activity. You can see so far, you can see so much, and of such variety and wonder that its very heartening to know its there... that such places exist - even here in America and its overpopulated National Parks, this is one place where far less than 1% of visitors get into the heart of. And yes, we didn't get near the heart of this wilderness on our visit, but from that vantage point we could glimpse it, imagine it and carry it away with us so that when we're back in some office or classroom back in Australia we can remember it and recall that wonder and peace we felt as we looked upon it for real, the soft wind sighing through the gaps in the rock, the heat shimmering on the plains below and the 99% of other visitors who were experiencing it with us.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Breakdown

The sun rose over the desert and right into our hotel window... blazing like some open furnace door, and lighting up the surrounding stone cliffs in its industrial glow.

It actually wasn't all that hot in the early morning - but there was the promise of heat to come, and by the time we headed north out of Monument Valley - leaving the red rocks and soft sand behind us it was over 90 degrees (or 32 Celsius - but 90 sounds hotter).

We travelled though the town of Mexican Hat, visited the amazing goose-necks state park (where the San Juan river meanders through some very soft rock and leaves an amazingly twisted trail) and then north onto a road that I'd been thinking about since we started planning the trip. The Moki Dugway wonders some 600 vertical meters right up the side of a cliff, even as we drove towards it I could not see any route up - it looked like the rock just swallowed the road like a Nargun from the dreamtime... but the road was there - and up it wound its 1100 feet of fun to the top.

We dawdled through the national bridges monument before making our stop at the dusty and interesting town of Moab - build on the dollars that uranium mining brought... and very close to one of the most visually stunning places I've been, Arches National Park.

From here on we entered what I call "Breakdown land"... winding blacktop cutting through thin red soil, stone clad gullys and abandoned farms... this is the place where one of my favourite thrillers Breakdown was filmed (watch it - its a cracker). Thankfully the locals are not as unfriendly as in the movie.

The locals live in and around the rock ringed town of Moab, built with dollars that Uranium mining brought, and living now off the thousands of tourists who come each day to visit the Arches National Park...

And whoo boy - I can see why they come in their thousands. Its amazing, from the moment you enter you're confronted with twisted landscapes of rock in all its hues... this isn't like monument valley, this is not just on the grans scale - but every scale, small boulders teeter on top of needle like plinths of rock, enormous spans of ribbon like rock reach across impossible distances to form graceful arches, and the sense of time, time passing, time past, weighs heavily.

We explored in depth, the girls again playing in the fine sand and having a ball (and getting filthy - but hey - its only sand) we walked through thin shaded gouges in the rock, the air cool in the shadows and looked out from our haven upon the endless expanse of sand, rock and hazy distance that stretched out from our oasis of shade.

Lib and I took turn to walk in the heat while the girls played in the car and then, as the sun began to sink we walked out again into the desert air and across the grassy plains to watch the sunset from "the windows", high up on the mesa that makes up the park. We followed a jackrabbit and the girls played in the sand again.

We sat in silence as the sun turned blood red, fringing the distant and low clouds in gold. The girls made wishes under the "magic wishing arch" that they in their wonderful imagination had found (Lucy a little sad as her chocolate chip cookie didn't instantly appear)...and as darkness fell and stars began to appear we listened to the cooling land and the distant cry of some lonesome desert bird.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Searchers

I thought I'd be missing the forest and mountains by now. Missing the cool air and the flowers... but I'm not. The desert out here is stunning, and amazingly alive. Alive with colour, sounds, sights and hidden goings on of the secret animal world.

Out of the shimmering lines on the road as it stretches into the liquid horizon of mid-day loom monstrous shapes. Shapes dredged up from the psyche, planted there by every darn western movie and image of the west as it never really was. Towering and majestic buttes and mesas of powerful red rock thundering up from the sand and dust and heat glazed highways...

This is Monument Valley, home of THE image of the west. It adorns movie posters of yesteryear and guide books of today, you'll have seen this place even if you have no idea what I'm talking about. As we speed in from the north even I feel like I *must* have been here before, the road stretching across the plain towards, and seemingly into, the ancient red plinths.

We're on Navajo nation land, marked by dusty private roads firing into the wilderness in dead straight lines, and twisting old wooden shacks on the side of the highway selling every type of jewellery imaginable as long as its made of beads... Its hot. Its bright, like fresh molten steel covers the sky, it hurts to look up, and its just amazing. Lines of cars on nearby roads back up to gaze in wonder and they all twinkle and sharply flare in the sun while they shuffle past.

We retreat into our hotel room for the afternoon (yes - hotel - its too hot to camp here!), and venture out towards sunset to explore the area on the *very* rugged loop road through the valley. Its wonderful. Bumpy, but fun, and a jaw gaping view at every turn, heads craning upward to try and take it all in. The monoliths are even bigger up close (obviously...much as Father Ted would explain to Dougal about cows). We get snap happy during the magic hour and get some alright shots, which is inevitable if you take thousands of pics law of averages says at least one has to be good...

We strike some luck, and as the sun dips below the sandy horizon we're left by ourselves on the valley floor, standing in the warm sand, bare footed, the girls playing and looking for animal tracks... theres evidence of life everywhere here... coyotes, lizards, jackrabbits, beetles... crickets singing softly... The air cools and the sky turns a bruised purple and all that's left is silhouettes, stars, the low smell of the stunted grasses and warped and hardy trees and the happy sounds of the girls as they jump around in the deep sand and try to follow lizard footprints in the fading light...

Monday, August 10, 2009

From on high

BOOM! And just like that the cooling, embracing, jagged peaks that had been our constant companions for the last week are gone. We wind our way down from passes cold and clear, sprinkled with wildflowers and hardy whisper pine, down and back into the warm and dry world of real summer.We leave the mountains with a pang of regret. Its like nothing we have in Australia, and it would be a completely new experience to see them in winter. A new, and COLD experience.

The large towns seem to leave the real mountains alone... The high passes and valleys, the meadows and jagged rock seem to drive them off, so when we get back to "solid ground" in the town of Durango its back to traffic lights, traffic snarls, fast food joints and supermarkets that actually have what you need at a price you can afford... so its bittersweet... its also *noticably* warmer...

After stocking up on camping food (cheerios and chocolate chip cookies) we head back towards the L.A. side of the street and the ancient cliff dwellings of mesa verde. They cliff dwellings were built between about 800 and 1200 A.D. and are pretty impressive (not so much the buildings themselves - hey, Rome came a long way before these huts) but for their location and for the fact that this is a bloody dry and hot place, and *somehow* these tenacious people managed to farm and thrive here, on the dry plateau for over 500 years, moving on only when the soil became nutrient depleted or fire fuel bacme too rare (the trees grow SLOW here)...

Did I mention their location too? Location location location... this is frightening stuff for a guy who's used to walking 5 minutes home from the bus and the hardest thing to negotiate is the steps to the front door. These amazing villages cling to alcoves far up canyon walls, the inhabitants having to climb by toeholds in the cliff up to the mesa top to do their days work and them scurry back down again (the joke goes that scientiest worked out the leasing cause of death here was sleepwalking...). Lord knows I had enough trouble getting down to them - even with all the ladders and chains the NPS has put in. But its stunning here. It's a brilliant place to visit, and another of those points on the map that I would look at and wonder what it was like... now I know... I'm glad I don't have to live halfway down a cliff, but I'm amazed at what we saw, and thankful for the priviledge of seeing it.

We camped in the park, the high and cold end of the mesa. Being in a tent, and it being so cold helped me get over my nostalgia for the mountains. Outside at elevation at night is a chilly experience...

As the moon rose over the bluffs that ringed the scrubby campground the evening story teller shared the tale of the stars, of orion's belt, the bear, the buffalo, the eagle and the wolf, the earth and the air... (the totems of the compass in the medicine wheel) and the first story teller as related to her by the descendants of those who used to live so close by...

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Scared of heights...

Sometimes you just need a holiday from your holiday. We knew that on such a long trip we'd get a bit weary and need a place to recharge our batteries and just have a bit of a kick back...

I thought long and hard about where we'd stop to take a breath, and there were a few places that seemed like they'd be a good spot, but there was only one that really stood out as a spot I'd love to stay for a week. You see, as some of you may know, I can get a bit fidgety... I like to move around... I can't even stay sitting down at work for very long without having to go and check on tapes or just shoot the breeze with the developers...

Its the same when I'm on holiday. I'm *not* a sit on the beach for two weeks kind of guy. I'd go a bit mad. But... I knew we'd need a break from being the road warriors so we had to find a nice place that could keep us happy, and keep my feet from wanting to wander for a good restful week.

The town we chose is Ouray. We're at about 8000 feet in the western rockies, the lush part, the exciting part, the part full of history, old mines, huge mountains, tall tales, big steaks, places with the name "gultch" in them and a WHOLE lot of jeeps.

We made our way here from Canon City via the Royal Gorge. I've no idea why its called Royal, but I've now got a good idea why the Gorge part is in there. Its home to the highest suspension bridge in the world, the gorge is about 400 meters deep, a cleft in the world that pops out of nowhere: rolling hills then BAM. STOP. BIG GORGE. The bridge wasn't really made for any other purpose than to draw visitors, and once there it does its best to scare the crap out of them. Its very rickety, the supports are all steel but seemingly thats where the money ran out as the span is comprised of old planks of wood, with a handy couple inch gap between each one, just so you can experience that vertiguous look down 400 meteres drop with each freaking step. Thank you! The girls liked it though as there was also a petting zoo and a merry-go-round. (It is actually worth a visit, the bridge is quite spectacular when you're not on it and praying...)

Then on we went to our Ouray. The countryside changes as we go, becoming more lush and green as we work our way west and though the rain shadow that those westerly mountains create. The West Rockies is a far different beast from the east. It probably isn't any higher, or steeper, but maybe it just feels that way... Ouray is surrounded my huge cliffs or red, grey and bleeding yellows on all sides. The sun doesn't seem to rise above them until well into the afternoon, and often sets even before then... Its beautiful - like no town I've ever been to. Some houses feel cosy, they're surrounded by trees or bush, this whole town feels cozy, no matter where you walk you're surrounded by visible nature, you really have to crane your neck to see above the mountains... its weird for a boy from Canberra...


Everyone in Ouray is four wheel driving mad. I can see why, there's literally hundreds of old mine trails, wagon trails, old toll roads cut into the sides of cliffs, ghost town waiting to be explored, high and distant meadows to be visited... and all only a few short miles off the highway... a few short possibly terrifying miles. Most of the trails are fine, we've even done some up into the mountains around Ouray and the scenery is breathtaking: rolling meadows backed by sharp red rock walls punching up to 14000 feet, blues and yellows, strange grasshoppers making even stranger noises, crystal clear streams meandering their way through the basin, tumbling cold and down toward the valley floor in hundreds of waterfall steps...


But its not all fun and games. There're roads out there with a reputation... they talk about them in hushed and reverant tones in the saloon... road with names like Poughkeepsie Gultch... Imogene and the worst... Black Bear Pass. They dont sound like much, but the locals wont mention their names without making the sign of the cross... their paths on the map snake across topographic lines so close they're almost a sea of black... "WARNING EXPERIENCED 4 WHEEL DRIVERS ONLY" shout the signs at their starting points. So of course every two bit 4x4 hack from out of town tries them and ends up paying to have their cars pulled out, driven down by someone else... or worse...


You can see these roads from certain viewpoints, looking like some trick of the light, or april fools, cut into cliffs, or hanging from mountains so steep you feel giddy just looking at them. I'll leave them for next time I'm here...

Besides, we're far too busy taking in the sights that dont risk life and limb... like playing in the local hot springs, visiting the toy shops, reading books or visiting ghost towns like Animas Forks or taking photos of wild flowers and abandoned mines in the high country on one of the more moderate roads... I actually dont mind the off road stuff... I could get into this. I just have to find several 14000 feet mountains to explore back in Australia... By the way - theres no good hot dogs in town so I made my own: Standard hot dog buns, Ball Park all beef Franks *grilled*! Cook one cob of white corn and cut off kernals, save. Pan fry one medium onion and 1/2 green pepper finely chopped until soft, add cooked corn kernals, 1/2 cup shredded monterey jack cheese and 2 finely chopped fresh roma tomatoes (chilled), add a little mexican hot sauce and dollop all over the top of your grilled frank in its warmed bun. Try to serve while onions, pepper and corn are hot and tomato is chilled... Very nice - even if I do say so myself.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Canon City Storms...

There's something about lying on your back, on your bed, in a motel room. This one just happened to be in Canon City, an anywhere town in the middle of Colorado, the praries before it, the Rockies rearing up behind it.

You pay for you room. It's your bed. It's your sheets. It's your bathroom... but like some vaudeville act in a small town it's "for one night only".

Orange-aid sodium light seeps in around the smokey curtains. The storm that lorded over the town like a monster, blotting out the setting sun as we approached has broken and passed. Angry bolts whipping the ground with light and fury as we gazed out the windows of chinese restaurant we had been pointed toward by the young guys behind the motel desk. "It's right on the corner. It's like... in a shed, well a small building, you wouldn't know it was a cafe! But its good..." And it is. The owner and cook's kids watch us from the small kitchen. A small child slumbers on his mother's shoulder as she brings spring rolls and excellent sechuan chicken.


The storm punches the ground with its fists and we watch it move on, lighting up the night and exciting children in another town somewhere to the east... if there is one. We leave and the children from the kitchen come out and wave us off from the window, the lurid red "OPEN" sign flickering off as we round the corner.

And now the trucks pass the motel room on the highway outside. The wheels pffffssssssh in the wet and the engines clamour as they decelerate into the heart of town. The traffic lights that impede them casting their red, yellow and green glow onto the oil slicked and glistening road, swirling with the neons of the "no-vacancy" red motels, jiffy lubes, burger kings, chick-fil-a's and all night pharmacies... The kids have swum in the pool. Made five-minute-friends and taken turns seeing who can splash the roof. A slick haired guy hops from the sauna to the street for a quick smoke in the cooling air and is back into the sauna to sweat again. Some kind of ritual or pennance. In the spa, he chats with Lib and tells her how everyone else here is having fun. Wants to be here. Likes to be here. He'd want to be anywhere else really. A freak storm wrecked his house, and his neighbour's... and his neighbour's neighbours... "Red tape" he sighs. "Could be six weeks til we know whats happening" and offers her a Bud Light... an impossibly large woman floats by... "Could have been worse though - I was going to paint the house that weekend - don't have to do that now..."

The girls get fitful and we put them to bed. Lib writes about Salt Lake City. I lie on my back. Listen to the trucks outside... to the aircon... to the kids still in the pool. It should be closed by now. The outside door squeals and I imagine it's the man who didn't have to paint, sweat from the sauna chilling him as he sucks on a cigarette, in the orange light of the car-park. "Thank God for insurance," he had told us while drinking his Bud Light, his feet dangling in the pool, "thank God for insurance."

It's your bed. Your sheets. Your aircon and TV... you paid for it right? You get what you pay for though. One night only. In the cold steel grey of early morning, like a visiting circus, you pack up and move onto another town. The only people who get to stay longer are those who don't really want to...

Pikes Peak or Bust!

From Vail we swing south, through the high and bleak but interesting mining town of Leadville. We visit an old opera house, the faded photographs of dapper chaps and glamourous songbirds of bygone days gaze down at us like benign ghosts.



The hall itself is cold, though full of life and colour and the residue of happy evenings. Jammy and Lucy have great fun on stage, singing and dancing to an empty hall and banging away on a battered old blue piano which sits on the stage. Leadville was almost 30 thousand people at one time, and this was the best darn opera hall west of the Mississippi!


We have a breakfast of steak and eggs and english muffins in the very up to date cafe next door. They claim to be something to do with Doc Holiday, but I don't think the doc was much into english muffins...


From Leadville we tramp east, towards the edge of the rockies, and through the high valleys. A huge grey wall of thunderstorms follows our every step, we get the occasional spatter of rain on the windshield but stay on mostly dry roads until we get to the North Pole and all hell breaks loose...


That wall of noise, light and water, the thunderstorms have caught up to us and caught us off guard. It PELTS down. The skies go grey, then black The views across the valley we're winding down, minutes ago a picture of verdant green grass and forest, begin to grey and then white out completely in the deluge. There is nowhere to take shelter except the North Pole...


The North Pole, a wonderland for kids I'm sure, is a very tacky attraction on the lowest slopes of one of Americas most famous mountains, Pikes Peak (the place that inspired Katherine Lee Bates to write "America the Beautiful"). I tell the girls that Santa doesn't live here, just people pretending to be him to make money. But we need to use a restroom and there're are none nearby save here... they kindly let us in to sue them - though it invloves a mad dash through the rain, and past empty amusement rides and silent dripping food stands. The girls are not amused to find that the toilets are "automatic" (they flush when you're finished, or just about, and give the girls the screaming mimis..." but we make it out alive, and without having to resort to buying any tacky Christmas oddities.


The rain eases, but Pikes Peaks is still hidden in the low clouds. It's not the highest peak in the state - but it's for sure the only with with a freaking road all the way to the freaking top. The grizzled attendant at the gate informs us the road is not open all the way due to the weather, but that at least it's half price, say 10 bucks. (Thats 90 bucks cheaper than taking the very cramped but rather famous cog railway to the top... being the cheapskate I am though, that was never an option.)


I have faith though. I hand over the 10 bucks and we begin winding our way up from 8000 feet through glorious forest and past chilly lakes. The sky is still low, and rain still flecks the screen, but a solid and reassuring line of blue is proceeding from the East in just the way the British forces never did during the war of independance.


Its needed thought as the road is like 'Going to the Sun' but worse, switchback after switchback, muddy and slippery and distinctly lacking in guard rails... but by the time we get to where the road should be closed its gloriously sunny and warming up, we ushered on on ON! by the ranger at the last checkpoint and begin our switchbacks up beyond the timberline and into real alpine territory. The views are stunning. I can see Denver over 80 miles away, we can see the storm, almost below us now, and lumbering out into the praries, we see lakes, forests, small towns, hundreds of them from so far up... at 14,100 feet we top out... its stunning. You can see forever, I've never been on such a high road, not 'going to the sun' nor 'beartooth' was anything like this...


We stop at the top - I open the door... and its almost ripped from its hinges by the gale that is blowing (where'd that come from! I think) papers, toys and screams fly around the car until I slam the door. We rug up and then make a break for a concrete bunker up here that houses the obligatory souvenier shop. Even amongst the tacky nick-knacks we can see what is so inspiring about this place...

After catching our breath we slowly wind back down the mountain, in the sun, and work our way toward our stop for the night, the town of Canon City....

 
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