January 12th, 2007

plane feet

It's grand and it's a canyon of canyons

Breakfast at Dennys watching the jacknifed lorry straighten out on the snow, but the snow had stopped by the time we headed out of town and over the Arizona high plains. Utterly flat with distant peaks and snow lying between the bushes and the yellow grass. It's around 28 and the windscreen washer jets freeze up. Past the Flintstones rv park where the parking markers are fake mastodon bones. Past the aircraft museum in the middle of nowhere, with a cruise missile parked outside; very Dr Strangelove. The clouds clear and the trees close in as we arrive at the south rim and we head for Mather Point for my first view of the canyon.

It's magnificent; cliffs and cirques and spires and stacks of stone in cream and red and pink and grey, edged in thick snow, dappled by a dusting of snow, carved through by the odd glimpse of the grey green river in the depths. The sun lights up a side canyon as a snow storm drifts silent and magnificent through the canyon. We walk through a young blizzard to the visitor centre and see warning signs about heat in the summer and ice in winter, promising that hardly anone falls off but that if you do fall off hardly anyone survives! Simon avoids the edges assiduously while I crane over to get photos.

There are two ways to go along the rim from here; we pick the longer route to Desert View first, which turns in through the forest for the first few miles, which means the snow on the road is compacted to ice by the gritter and doesn't get enough sun to melt. The road down to Grandview Point is about as scary but the view is grand and the snow beautiful and thick. There used to be a small hotel here but there's no trace. More wonderful views from Moran Point and the road is much better by now. Desert View has a distant view of the painted desert and the Colorado River snaking away into the distance in one direction; in the other the canyon turns back on itself and the peaks and slopes double and repeat. The sky is clear and blue and the warm yellow stones of the watchtower glow in the late afternoon light. This is one of the best pieces of architecture I've seen; designed by Mary Coulter to fit into the landscape, which it does perfectly and to combine Hopi and modern references, which it does with respect for both cultures (having a Hopi artist helped). You don't feel you're in a Disney imitation and you don't feel you're intruding into a sacred space either. The Hopi wall paintings, the sand painting, the glorious roof pictures, the snake dance, the pottery, the rawhide twisted around the stair rail are intriguing rather than mysterious. It uses the wood from the remains of the Grandview hotel. And the lantern at the top with large and small picture windows is a lovely space with glorious views. It reminded me of the way Nepenthe fits into the cliffs and bush, reaching up without towering over anything. The watchtower is the highest thing in the park but you can't see it from more than a few yards away. We did see it in silhouette from a distance looking like part of the landscape.

Cool giftshop too ;)

The afternoon light was beautiful as we stopped at Lipan Point. We saw a raven so big we wondered if it could actually fly until we saw another equally huge on top of a bush. Straight through Grand Canyon Village and out to Hopi Point for the sunset. The sun hovered on the edge of the rim turning the clouds to gold then slipped away, leaving them pink and purple. It was colder than ever and we couldn't manage without gloves, two layers of fleece and coats and hats. Brrrrrr.

Back to the village in the last of the light; we stayed in Maswick Lodge which is a series of two story buildings that look anonymous but are very pleasant inside. The rooms upstairs (second floor in American) have vaulted beamed ceilings and ceiling fans for the summer; downstairs has normal aircon. The décor is simple but stylish though stone tiles in the shower are one thing and another on the floor in winter! The bedside lamp had a mule outline and the shade was painted on the inside; rough cream until you turn it on when cowboys and trekkers ride against a green and rocky backdrop. I want one!

Dinner at Bright Angel Lodge - the posher Arizona room was closed and I want to go back to see the fireplace in the history room - also designed by Coulter - which replicates the strata of the canyon. The Bright Angel restaurant is nice; not too fancy, serves Deschutes Black Butte and Mirror Pond pale ale and good hearty food in enormous portions. The quesadilla starter could be a main course, the chicken and onion rings starter has the best part of three chicken breasts, the steak is a slab and the southwestern creamy chicken is another two breast fillets. We retired defeated to look at the stars over the canyon rim and off to bed (after polishing off a buying guide on gps for me).

The one benefit of UK to US jetlag is waking up early. That's the only way I see dawn. We didn't make sunrise but we were out a few minutes after, driving up to Hopi Point and on to Hermits Rest, with a stop at the Powell Memorial on the way back. We passed a stag and a handful of elk - looking like slouching teenagers in need of a haircut. The early light is beautiful and you feel you have the canyon to yourself except for the mass of ravens wheeling in the sky overhead (a murder of crows, a parliament of rooks - a tower of ravens?). A pair of ravens fly together, tapping wings and playing tag.

Powell is a one way cut along the rim and a footpath out onto a spur, with steps at the end to give you even more view; I think it's the furthest any point goes out into the canyon.

Breakfast at the rather grand El Tovah hotel where the big picture windows make the wooden dining room look dark. The tables by the window have the best view. The food and coffee are excellent but the waitstaff say 'I hope you found it delicious' in a very practiced way; I suppose it's very English to find that offputting!

On the way back we take the route 66 detour at Seligman through Peach Springs to see Cars country - we spotted the Cosy Corner motel, the military surplus hut, the curio stores and the mountains shaped not quite like radiators. Oddest mountains were slopes with buttes sticking out the top of them, waiting for the slopes to erode away.

Over the Hoover Dam; the supports for the new road and bridge are feats of engineering too, towering up from the slopes. And down into Vegas with the GPS battery running out just before the unmarked turn for our hotel, when we discover there's no power to the cigarette sockets in the car ;(
full steam ahead

Crazy busy at CES

Four days of gadgets galore, standing in line for shuttle buses back and forth between sites (some of which were Routemasters with the top sawn off), burgers at In-N-Out, gazing down at Vegas from the 32nd floor, gazing down at Vegas from the monorail, sushi at Shibuya at MGM (eventually), meetings, meetings, meetings, gadgets and collapsing into bed.

Now we're on the road to San Jose; we stopped in Barstow for coffee, marvelled at the star-clotted sky over the desert and mountains backlight by moon and we're stopped in Mojave in a motel (America's Best Value Inn) which has that round the world fixed wing glider carved into the mirror frame and headboards! Tomorrow we'll head to Pasa Robles and look for wineries... Good night ;)
full steam ahead

Spaceplanes and windmills

Didn't really notice the trains hooting through Mojave in the night but we looked up as we drove out of the motel and saw a cluster of wind turbines. Down the road we saw a rocket; we turned down the road to the Mojave air and spaceport and it turned out to be an experimental single stage to orbit used as the sign for Rotary Rocket. Dozens of planes mothballed in the desert with a train thundering past in the background. Somewhere in the sheds labelled Scaled Composites is the Virgin Galactic spaceplane, getting accustomed to being somewhere ruddy cold. Up on the hills are a mass of wind turbines, looking spare and elegant and beautiful on the slopes. Rows of turbine blades line up in a field and a jack rabbit hops away under them; a flock of quail stagger back and forth in the wind, flowing past the capsule. The sky is a different pale blue in each direction and deep blue overhead (where it isn't full of snowclouds). Sage brush and joshua trees and snow covered trees fringe the hills that aren't already fringed by wind turbines. As the sign says, this is California with four seasons - the edge of the High Sierras. We see four freight cars overturned on the tracks and stop at the Keene Café just outside Tehachapi for roasted tri-tip with cheese and grilled red onions on grilled sourdough. After lunch we'll look for the Tehachapi loop where the engine of a freight train passes 77 feet above the line of wagons it's pulling.
plane feet

The day of ground squirrels

And indeed, things that eat ground squirrels. We saw one running through a field, one poised on a heap of earth and another running across the road, plus maybe a coyote and many birds of prey.

After the mountain pass from Arizona, California quickly gets flat and strip malled, but we cut across the central valley and back into mountains; vast desolate sweeps with cows and oil dippers and pale yellow grass under a blue sky, with every verge and electric wire alive with birds. We climed into the hills on roads that did hairpins around the slopes then zommed out of them on switchback humpbacks with the yellow light warming the grey hills until we escaped the rainshadow and they turned green. Driving towards Morro Bay we saw the volcanic plug sweeping up from the steel blue sea into the apricot pink sky. Naturally the road never went the right way to get a photo but the sky was gold and orange as we reached Cambria, beautiful seen through grass and branches on the cliff edge, with Venus burning silver bright in the last of the light and the sea washing in to Moonstone Beach.

We'd tried the Sea Otter last time we were in Cambria and it was full; this time we got a deal on a kingsize ocean view with a fireplace - gas for convenience. A quick dip in the steaming hot tub for star gazing before dinner (and a very chilly walk back to the room). The Cafe Soleil we ate at before had turned into a wine and cheese for lunch place, so we found the Black Cat bistro instead, which has a very similar menu and sat next to Ron and Julie, celebrating their tenth anniversary and talked geek and wine and travel until they went back to their jacuzzi. Sausage and butternut squash pizza, cheese stuffed marsala soaked portabella , cocoa rubbed rack of elk with a green sauce, five spice duck breast with a celeriac mash and fried spinach (that was the only taste I would have skipped) and peach brandy panna cotta (the chef had gone home otherwise I'd have had the berry chocolate souffle). We're just finishing the last of the Red Zeppelin syrah now; apparantly the wine maker has Elvis as his advisor, and for a lovely day with beautiful if freezing weather, good company, food and wine I'll say 'thank you verra much'.

But two things puzzle me. One, why do so many people here think Wales is in London and two, why do we have to hide the wine in a brown paper bag to bring it home?

So again, we'll aim for Pasa Robles tonight - and maybe San Jose tomorrow!