Road Trip: 12 days (July 20 – August 1, 2010), 4,350 miles. Two slightly crazy adults and two adolescents in an over-packed Honda Accord sedan.
Route: Dallas, TX to Albuquerque, NM to the Grand Canyon National Park to Parker, AZ (Blue River Resort & Casino) to Los Angeles, CA (Disneyland, Hollywood, Malibu Beach) to Las Vegas, NV through Zion National Park, UT to Monument Valley, UT to Durango, CO to Taos, NM to Amarillo, TX and back to Dallas.
Details of a sketchy nature as follow:
Albuquerque’s restored “Old Town” is uninspired. I wanted to visit the Rattlesnake Museum where Craig Ferguson’s rattlesnake mug came from but there wasn’t time. I’m sure Albuquerque has its charms, but we didn’t happen to run across any of them in our quick look-see..
The Grand Canyon literally induces vertigo upon first sight. It is utterly beyond comprehension or capture on mere film. Of course, we all nonetheless rambled from incredible scenic view to incredible scenic view merrily snapping pictures. The Grand Canyon is one of the few sights, natural or man-made – and I’ve seen quite a few of both by now – that more than lives up to its billing. Williams, AZ, where we stayed, boasts a handful of interesting stores and restaurants and, oddly enough, a staged gunfight every evening during tourist season. I wonder if a hundred years from now tourists visiting gentrified former ghettos will be treated to reenacted drive-by shootings?
The Blue Water Resort Casino is par for the Indian casino course but for two significant attractions. First, it borders a beautiful stretch of the Colorado River, hence its name. Second, it includes its own little indoor water park, all the better for the kids to be endlessly distracted on the water slide (as our two certainly were) while the adults give America back to the Indians, one hand of blackjack at a time. (In fact, my wife doesn’t gamble at all and, strictly speaking, neither do I unless you can say that playing the nickle slot machines for an hour or two at a total cost of under $50 counts as gambling. I actually find the mindlessness of it all very relaxing.)
Los Angeles’ freeways immediately remind me that the only possible rational reason to live there is because one is a movie star. As I am not a movie star, I am always happy to leave L.A., and the sooner the better. Disneyland, to which I had never before been, was much smaller than I thought it would be. The kids nonetheless seemed to enjoy what there was of it and I managed to check off yet another minor Bucket List item. I’d be very happy to own some Malibu beachfront property, but that’s a Bucket List item unlikely to ever get checked. I’ve been on a studio tour before, so all we did in terms of seeing Hollywood was drive and walk around a bit, e.g., ducking into the Kodak Theater and looking at some of the sidewalk enshrined stars, seeing the big HOLLYWOOD sign, etc..
Speaking of stars, we drove up to the Griffith Observatory, one of the few things in L.A. I really like, and saw what stars we could given the ambient (and, itself, quite beautiful) light from the city. On the last night of the trek, however, far away from civilization of any sort somewhere in the Texas panhandle, I pulled over and we all got out and looked at a perfectly clear night sky. Contrary to MGM’s old motto, it was a far more star studded event.
From coastal California to its immediate neighbor to the east one must traverse some of the worst desert in the U.S. There are those who love desert landscapes – Quine, for example (sorry, that’s a philosophy joke) – such as the Mojave. But I’m not among them, and even having had the car thoroughly checked before the trip, cell phones fully charged and the trunk filled with a case of bottled water, the prospect of being stuck here even briefly is frankly frightening. Mind you, that doesn’t keep me from cranking the A/C down to the low 70s as we admire the Joshua Trees and whatever else somehow manages to live here.
Vegas, Baby! As previously mentioned, neither my wife nor I are gamblers, nor does the sort of live entertainment Las Vegas offers, legitimately or not, interest us. But my family had never seen the Strip before and, like the Grand Canyon, it is something that needs to be seen in person at least once. Vegas has pretty much given up the pretense that it offers family entertainment, and room and board is no longer as cheap as they were back when more honest but unelected criminals ran the town. Plus, of course, Vegas no longer has the near monopoly on gambling it once enjoyed. Even so, if there’s anything else even remotely like Las Vegas anywhere else on Earth, it’s probably somewhere in Asia where the rooms would be even more expensive.
The route between Las Vegas and anything remotely resembling a mountain passes again through seemingly endless desert first. Yes, America is a vast nation, but there’s a good reason why states like Nevada and Utah are sparsely populated. You can always tell when you’re entering or leaving Nevada, by the way, as there will be a casino right on the county line just in case you can’t wait to do a bit of gambling.
St. George, Utah, as my wife read to me, was not named after the dragon slayer but, more probably, after a Mormon apostle named George A. Smith. Well, this is Utah, after all. As we looked for a place for lunch, I learned a bit about Mormon city planning, what with a Main Street and a Central Street dividing the town into predictably numbered quadrants. Also about a supposedly polygamous “Primitive Mormon” community we’d passed earlier. By far, however, the most interesting discovery that day in my opinion was Nielsen Frozen Custard. I hadn’t had frozen custard (as opposed to frozen yogurt or mere “soft serve” ice cream) since I was a young child, but fond memories of the Polar Bear frozen custard shop on the edge of Alexandria, Virginia made a dessert stop after lunch a necessity. And a delicious necessity, at that.
The Four Corners region has some pretty spectacular scenery aside from the Grand Canyon, as a drive through Zion National Park demonstrates. My wife routinely commented on how quickly and dramatically the scenery and landscape in this part of the country can change, and she was absolutely right. I hadn’t expected to get anywhere near our $25’s worth out of the price to drive through this park, but we did. And my younger son made the telling observation that if we had not seen the Grand Canyon first, just days earlier, we would have been overwhelmed by the mountainous drive. He’s right, too. It’s pretty damned spectacular.
Monument Valley, UT is in the middle of nowhere (actually, a bit to the right of nowhere), but I guarantee you’ve seen it before. This is where John Ford and many other movie directors filmed I have no idea how many Westerns. Vast empty areas punctuated by towering buttes. Hardly as spectacular as some of the other things we saw on this trip, but seeing the area in person for the first time is much like, say, seeing New York City in person for the first time. It is at once familiar and somewhat frighteningly strange. (I made a point of watching The Searchers when we got back home so we could all go “I saw that!”)
I’d never been to Colorado before and by this time I was frankly eager to spend the night in my own bed. Still, we weren’t going to make it back before having to spend at least one more night on the road, so my wife picked Durango, CO. This is an absolutely drop-dead beautiful part of the country, a mile or more up in the mountains where the air is cool and clean and one can see waterfalls with water that might actually be safe to drink. The town serves two tourist seasons: winter skiers and summer hikers, bikers, train aficionados and such, plus it boasts one of the best French restaurants and bakeries this side of Paris. My wife and I looked around, then looked at each other and both thought this place deserves to go to the top of the list for a potential vacation townhouse or condo.
You can almost feel the average income plummet as you cross from Colorado into New Mexico. And this even though Northern New Mexico is home to some very affluent communities. Santa Fe, for example. We’d been to Santa Fe before, though, and wanted to see Taos, its supposedly more bohemian neighbor to the north, this time around.
The Taos Pueblo is, let’s face it, a tourist trap. That it might be a tourist trap with some archeological interest doesn’t save it from being, at most, a step up from alligator farms. Of the Indians who, um, work there, three supposedly actually live there, too; though I have a sneaking suspicion even they sneak off to better lodging when the weather is bad. There’s a small chapel, probably built by Homer Smith and some German nuns back when the world was in Black & White. Someone has discreetly hung a cross over the lurking, larger than life size statue of Mary that takes center stage behind the altar.
Unlike Santa Fe, where buildings are pretty much required by zoning to adhere to a strict pueblo architecture, Taos does have a more casual and less moneyed feel about it. It is, however, a very artsy town with many art galleries. As I like to kid my old high school friend, Dan Rizzie, my taste in art tends toward dogs playing poker and Elvis on black velvet, but it’s clear that someone with more money and taste than I have could have a good time shopping in Taos.
On our last night on the road we had dinner at Del’s Restaurant in Tucumcari, NM – I have indeed been from Tucson to Tucumcari, but not yet from Tehachapi to Tonopah – along “Historic” U.S. Route 66. Del’s wasn’t too bad as roadside diners go, and I would almost certainly prefer taking a chance on a local restaurant even along a tourist strip than settling for a fast food joint. Regardless, Del’s had the overwhelming advantage of still being open by the time we hit Tucumcari en route to Amarillo with only one late night competitor, a Chinese restaurant. How is it that wherever you go, if the town has more than, say, five thousand people in it it will have a Chinese restaurant. I mean, how do Chinese restauranteurs find these places? Do the owners of the Chinese restaurant in East Jesus call relatives and tell them that Fort Stinking Desert, the next down the road doesn’t have a Chinese restaurant yet?
Speaking of food, Amarillo, TX boasts (and, believe me, that’s the right word) a place called Big Texan, home of the “free 72 ounce steak.” I like steak. I like steak very much. I’ve been known to finish off steaks well above a mere pound. Tourists trying to polish off four and a half pounds of steak, however – and they must pay for the steak if they can’t – go a long way toward explaining why the U.S., um, enjoys the reputation it does throughout much of the rest of the world. (On the other hand, there’s much to be said for the immigrant taxi driver who told my friend Ron Bailey that he came to live in the U.S. because in this country “even the poor people are fat!”)
Between Amarillo and Wichita Falls there is a community college the name of which I forget with a sprawling campus. The only building clearly visible from the highway is marked “Instructional Building,” raising the question what all the others are there for. The Texas panhandle is, well, the Texas panhandle: something that must be traversed to get to or from somewhere else. Which we did. Without going all Judy Garland here, few things are better in life than one’s own bed (and pillow!) after an extended trip.
N.B. — If I get really ambitious, I’ll add some pictures, either stock or from our little point&shoot, in a few days.