January 3rd, 2009

plane feet

The monuments are (mostly) natural


The Quality Inn in Tuba City gets mixed reviews on Travelocity; we really liked it - warm, clean, spacious, pleasant design, friendly staff. The price is a little high but then it's the only hotel in town and Tuba City is a convenient stop between the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley. The hogan restaurant was closed for New Year's Day but open for breakfast, and getting a real cooked breakfast (from a list of three, cooked to order and brought to you rather than languishing on a buffet) probably puts the price back to good value. We don't each much breakfast at home apart from lazy weekend brunch, but it's cold enough and we'll walk enough to be very glad of it most days. Also, American breakfast - pancakes or biscuits and sausage gravy or scrambles and hash browns - it's just so much better than limp fried eggs and beans (although the poached egg on muffin in the Virgin Clubhouse was nice too).

It's not all breakfast! We drove out of Tuba City hunting Coal Mine Canyon, which we probably drove past twice but didn't find the way into: looking it up, the directions are passing obscure.... we drove over Moenkopi Wash and caught glimpses of canyons to either, one of which would be Coal Mine Canyon, we drove up onto Cola Mine Mesa and on and on and on, with only solitude and views of San Francisco Peak - which are worth the drive anyway.

Our next random excursion was much more successful. The Navajo National Monument is actually an Anasazi pueblo sheltered in a cliff arch. You get a good view of the Tsegi canyon it's in from the overlook just outside the park station but to see the ruins you can either hike right into the valley (8am start, 6 hour walk described as climbing a 70-story building with sand on the steps and not in winter) or take the half mile track to the Betakin overlook. This would be a nice walk in any weather, up and down the slope and over several wooden walkways. When there's thick snow and a mix of snow and ice on the path it's more of an adventure: I don't much mind sitting down hard on snow when I'm wearing leather trousers, gloves and a down jacket on and we had a nice scramble and slide to the overlook. The canyons are beautiful and the ruins are impressive even from a distance: regular blocks and steps and buildings in the natural arch. But what really struck me was the complete and utter silence. There's a replica sweat lodge and fork-stick hogan at the park station; the bones of what Colter used to create her buildings.

Back to the main road and we amused ourselves by speculating on what the odd tower ahead was, and where the railway line would go. To the tower, which is where the conveyor from the coal mine ends up; now that looks like an amusement ride, up and down the slopes between the high mesa and the railway. On past mesas and canyons and distant peaks until we reached Kayenta. Navajo towns are understated; nothing flashy that draws attention, a few shops and services, a few hotels and restaurants. We chased the sun into Monument Valley, stopping several times to snap the vista and appreciate outlying rocks and then driving up to the visitor centre. The 17-mile dirt track will take a couple of hours if I can convince himself we won't bog down in mud so we stood on the viewpoint watching the sunset and gently freezing. Back to Kayente for the night, where all three big-name hotels are run by the same family. The sun setting behind a bluff throwing out stylised rays like a 1930s stained glass front door: I've always called this zodiac light. Beautiful.

Three kinds of fry bread for dinner (must walk tomorrow!): as croutons with cinnamon in a black bean chili, as the tortilla underneath chili and cheese and lettuce and salsa and all the usual southwestern extras, and with cinnamon apples and vanilla ice cream.

Some of the formations in the Grand Canyon look shaped by human hand; erosion creates stacked blocks. Colter uses that to make her buildings look part of the landscape. The pueblo ruins have been there so long they are part of the landscape, and they're made out of rocks from the place they're built. The hopi architecture is somewhere in between and Colter references it constantly and respectfully. The navajo earth hogans would fit in to the landscape as well; even the trailers and prefab homes sit snugly in the landscape.
full steam ahead

Warmer, colder, canyoner

I was the warmest I've felt in several weeks yesterday, standing in the sun waiting for the rental car shuttle at Las Vegas. We flew on new year's eve and the flight was late, which meant more time for breakfast. And the plane was full, but even with the usual stop-start luggage we were out and enjoying the sunshine quickly. We did a little urgent shopping: wasabi tempura seaweed crackers from Trader Joes (my favourite), a down jacket in the REI sale (my christmas present) and pork tip and fried chicken from Whole Paycheck for dinner (muy tasty). This year the road across the Hoover dam wasn't clogged with tourists so we made good time and got a closer look at the new bridge they're building over the dam: we saw it from the plane, and we flew over Bryce and Zion too, so lots of views. The bridge is an amazing feat: huge pillars and a stunning arch going in.

Arizona is thickly dusted with snow: we drove as far as Williams the first night, where the Days Inn is warm and quiet and has a Dennys that's open for breakfast new year's day. We almost took the grand canyon train but breakfast won and it's a lovely drive into the canyon over high plains desert. Mather point was crowded so we went straight down to Hermit's Rest and worked back. The Hermit's Rest building is another Mary Ann Colter with a huge arched fire niche complete with a red hot fire. If you need to poke the fire, there are six foot fire irons with the heads of fanciful mediaeval beasts...

Like Hermit's Rest, Hopi house is a gift shop with a mix of t shirts and mugs and magnets on one hand and stunning navajo rugs and jewellry on the other, but we were looking at the architecture. Colter painted rugs on the boards and used the different rooms and levels of hopi buildings to give you lots of corners to explore. El Tovah hotel is far grander and has a huge christmas tree draped with lights that make it look ethereal.

We stopped at about half of the viewpoints including Grandview, which has a grand view. The paths were icy enough to have us clambering and slithering, especially when we caught the sunset on the watchtower at Desert View. The stones flame copper and honey in the light and the desert turns pink. I hung on to telescopes and trees and hung over the edge to get shots when I'd usually be hanging back worried about slipping on the ice. Maybe I have the soul of a snapper after all.

Desert View was both too crowded and too cold to hang on for the last of the light so we saw the Arizona alpenglow over the desert and the little Colorado canyon instead - mem to self, go back in daylight and get past the little shopping stands that fringe the edge and get in the way of the view. We got to Tuba City as darkness fell and sacked out with surprisingly good sandwiches from Sonic. Bed!