Out Now!

Friday, 31 December 2010

The Petrified Spirit

Thursday 29th

What’s worse, the dead mind or the jaded spirit? I all but found out on the 29th of July. We’d set off for Albuquerque where, enroute, we saw a petrified forest, followed by a ‘painted desert’…and I was bored.

Did Roman emperors ever reach this unhappy state? Here was I, still surfeit after the Grand Canyon, now presented with fresh wonders and no emetic to make room for them.

Given the chance I would have enjoyed camping the night there, wandering around, perhaps toying with the possibility of ‘getting lost’. Instead, other than a very short stop we drove on by, and staring out through the window, I might as well have been watching TV. Grumble over. I had no reason or excuse to be bored. A character flaw.

As we approached Albuquerque we saw a few balloons – maybe practising for the festival later in the year. Albuquerque however I can’t really remember. Serves it right for not being one hundred percent sure of who or what it is named after.

Was it named after a past provincial governor Francisco Fernandez de la Cueva who also held the title of Duke of Alburquerque – a small Spanish town? But then where did Alburquerque come from? It’s enough to drive a man mad. Some argue it is rooted in Arabic for ‘land of the cork’ - ‘Abu al-Qurq’ (but don’t let the Taliban in on the secret).

Others hold the conviction that it is based on the latin for ‘white oak’ or ‘Alba querqus’ because the wood of the cork oak is white after the bark has been stripped. These scholars flaunt the seal of the original Spanish village which is that of a white oak, framed by a shield, and topped by a crown. Conclusive you might say – Oh God yes – please say yes.

But no. Etymologists are a perverse bunch. Some go back to the blessed Arabs again, suggesting the word is derived from the Arabic for ‘plum’ ie ‘Al-Barquq’ and its derivative ‘Albaricoque’ which is Galician for Apricot. They don’t have a seal to prove it, just a nice story: The settlement of La Ciudad de Albaricoque was established near an apricot tree. Frontiersmen, unable to speak Spanish with any degree of fluency, pronounced it as Albuquerque. As I said it’s enough to drive a man mad, which is probably better than being bored.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Yogi Bear and the Grand Canyon

These three pictures show the sun rising over the Grand Canyon and then the Grand Canyon itself.

Wednesday 28th

Roland and I woke at 4.30 am and staggered along the path, just in time to catch the sun rising over the canyon. Then it was back to the bus for the journey to the start of Angel Trail. We took our first steps into the canyon at 6 am.

It was deceptively easy walking down – like a gigantic and never ending sand-stone staircase, spiralling ever deeper in time. . . the old, old west, and then earlier still. The canyon, I believe, is a mile deep, but the spiralling path is something in the region of ten miles. It wasn’t exactly a broad highway to Hell, but the thought crossed my mind later in the day, when it was time to climb out the damn place.

Walking down was magical, a little like bouncing along the yellow brick road, only here we were surrounded by vibrant ochre, intense heat and silence, the vegetation a strange, bluish green.

It took just under three hours to reach the bottom, where we paddled in a very green Colorado river. The temperature was rising fast, and it wasn’t even midday. Time to get out. I remember craning my neck, looking up at a distant rim, the thread of a path winding its way up the now glowing rock.

I started off alone with a water bottle, (I realised the hard way) was far too small. Mind you, one fool in group had no water-bottle at all and was in a very bad way – re-hydrating barely in time at each of the three water-stops.

The first water stop was at Indian Gardens, five miles up. It was lakin to being trapped in a red, radio-active oven – a 100 degrees and rising. The sparse vegetation was chuckling, though I may have been hallucinating. I was dehydrating fast, sweating dropping off me in a small monsoon.

The worst thing about sweating is not the smell, but the loss of something you never really think about - minerals. I was aware of my joints seizing up, like an engine losing its lubricant.

Then just before mid-day, I reached Indian Gardens and drank, and drank, and drank. Just five miles to go and two more water stops to look forward to.

About a mile from the top I witnessed a ‘Yogi Bear’ moment. Bear in mind, I’d never seen real ‘park rangers’ before and this one looked just like Park Ranger Smith in Yogi Bear, right down to the hat he was wearing. Only instead of Yogi Bear he was addressing a very fat woman in a bright, floral dress. She was wearing high heels and was slumped over a very large boulder.



despite some very urgent prodding from Park Ranger Smith. “You can do it, ma’am. It really isn’t far.” Every so often he looked upwards, as though the crest of the canyon might be lowered by a mustard grain of faith. She wasn’t persuaded and I left them there where they remain forever in my memory.

A little further up, two other members of our party emerged like lizards from the shade of a rock. Sharon and Dorita who, with a better sense of their capabilities than the woman in her floral dress, had walked until they felt hot, and then slept in the shade, waiting for it to cool again before beginning their ascent - little over half a mile.

Gary, our driver, and the rest of the group staggered out around 6pm. Gary was in pretty bad shape but incredibly cheerful having achieved what he wanted. As I remember, Laura, having taken the New York advice to heart, never went down.

The day began quietly. It ended with a bang. We ate dinner in a storm.

This picture is the same as the first one above but turned upside down, because I'm a simple soul, and to me it resembles an alien landscape

Saturday, 11 December 2010

The Hoover Dam, not without its warts

Tuesday 27th

We set off early for the Hoover Dam, about 25 miles from Vegas. I didn’t know what to expect, and to be frank, was looking forward more to our ultimate destination, the Grand Canyon.

In the scraps that constituted what I optimistically called a diary, I apparently ‘learned’ that the dam, far from being a public works scheme, was largely built by convict labour.

Who told me that, and where he got his information from remains a puzzle. But all the records seem to suggest otherwise. Mind you, in terms of wages, work conditions and the total lack of concern for worker's safety, they might as well have been convicts. Other than explosions and similar mishaps, tunnels were often filled with carbon monoxide from vehicle exhaust. Truck drivers came down with CO poisoning and many died. The contractors, however, paid off the doctors to attribute death to other causes in order to avoid compensation...a salutary thought as you stare at the gleaming white concrete and magical, turquoise water.

That morning I was bombarded with figures and facts:

Its reserve of water, Lake Mead is the largest man made lake in the world and the Arizona Nevada border runs across it. The dam blocks the Colorado River in Black Canyon and it remains the largest dam in the western hemisphere:
660 ft thick base, and 45 ft crest, it stretches 1244 ft across the canyon. The water stored in Lake Mead irrigates three quarters of a million acres across the USA and half a million acres in Mexico.

And to this day I wonder why I bothered to write them all down. I mean, who cares? It’s hardly likely to set fire to a party; hardly likely to set fire to this blog.

But there is, perhaps, a darker side to the dam.

As the name suggests, the project was conceived and began under Hoover’s presidency, though Roosevelt largely gets the credit for it.* And whilst there, we accepted its visual and statistical triumphalism. The dam is, without doubt, a wonderful piece of engineering. What none of us knew then was its environmental cost.

The Colorado River no longer runs to the sea, but Las Vegas* exists, and against the whole grain of the surrounding ecology, a desert has been temporarily transformed into a tropical paradise – if Real Estate brochures are to be believed.

But for how long? Lake Mead’s level is falling fast as Vegas and other conurbations feed from its water, and all those various needs from competing interests that have arisen ever since the dam was built can only lead to future ‘water-wars’. Already, after a ten year drought, another $700 million has been spent on installing an additional pipeline lower into the diminishing lake, but what happens after that?

I like this picture. I remember falling asleep immediately after. The Hoover ones are 'borrowed' until my slides have been converted into scan-able prints.

We lunched on the outskirts of Klingman, Arizona- a garage, diner and motel in the wilderness. (Which makes us sound like omnivorous monsters.) It was dry and hot, with no sign of life. And then, much later, we reached the Grand Canyon and went to bed early, ready for the descent the following day.

Two things delayed sleep: the arrival of a bunch of irritating New Yorkers who earnestly assured us that only the supremely fit should consider walking down to its base, and that we were fool-hardy to try; and, even more irritating, Laura nodding her head and agreeing with them.

* In May 1931 the then Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes tried to modify history in a thoroughly Stalinist measure, by renaming the Hoover dam - ‘Boulder dam’ a queasily partisan attempt to erase anything that might suggest that it wasn’t only Roosevelt who appreciated the merit of public works.

*Vegas extracts 90% of its water from Lake Meade

Friday, 3 December 2010

From Calico to Vegas

Monday 26th

Destination – Vegas! The desert was bleak and evocative. We stopped at an old mining town called Calico. It was desolate, breathtakingly primitive, its huts made from rocks or protruding from caves. The land was a dull orange and grey, the sky washed in cloud and rain. An hour or two later a flash-flood swept across the great Nevada desert, a land where our tour guide solemnly told us it ‘it never rained’.

From one ghost town to another. In Vegas we stayed in a fairly plush hotel with a Jacuzzi, and a pool where we played blind man’s bluff. It was a good way to prepare ourselves for the evening to come

We walked to the centre of Vegas and there exhorted to take pictures - the selling point being that the lights were so vivid and intense we wouldn’t need flash. I took my obligatory pictures of virulent greens and pinks and blues. It didn’t take long, and then we were off to our first casino. I thought Reno was the Devil’s Playground. It was merely his porch. This place redefined hedonism.

And we had a whole night.

In one casino – The Lucky Wagon – a fountain gushed out champagne that you drank from paper cups. It wasn’t first class champagne but it was profligate and free and never-ending. Have you ever seen those women near chocolate fountains, they lurk, suck strawberries, fake conversation all the time pouncing with the remorseless rhythm of the metronome. Trapped by chocolate. With me it was champagne. I couldn’t believe it. Maybe hell wasn’t so bad after all.

And then at 1a.m it trickled to a stop

As one we sighed, those brave few topers who’d stayed.

And then the devil had mercy. At 1.15 it gushed forth once more – this time Bloody Marys. It didn’t go with champagne, but we persevered.

At two am I was feeling peckish and located a casino that offered thirty course dinners for three dollars. By this time the pattern was clear. Casinos didn’t really want their customers to go anywhere else or notice the transition from night to day. No Casino we saw had windows, but many had crèches for kiddies so father and mother could gamble with blithe conscience. These crèches also offered unlimited food, along with small toddler-sized fruit machines to start them off young.
In short there was never any trouble in getting into a casino, the problem was mustering the will to get out.

Daphne and I were walking the sidewalk when suddenly she glided from me, caught on an escalator that was easing her off to fresh temptation: Caesars Palace. I followed, bemused by marbled Roman dignitaries, staring at all and sundry in blank disapproval. Behind them gardens glowed in green and pink. And then we were inside, a vast and gaudy space, surprisingly empty.

Even more interesting inside. We had nothing like this in Wales

Every motel has an ‘admag’ advertising call-girls in graphic and colourful detail, price, appearance and ‘what they do’ are all included. It made for good reading which in itself made for safe sex, I suppose, but where were these creatures of the night?

It was Dana who found out. Walking back from the casino and losing her way she was mistaken for a call girl, not by a punter but by those already in situ. She was rounded on and vigorously warned off from ‘occupied territory’. I don’t know what mortified her most, the ‘verbal’ or being mistaken for significant competition.

We left the motel early evening. The transition from lurid to desert was dramatic. The sun was setting behind distant mountains that fringed the desert. The effect was holographic, the mountains a radio-active pink and almost transparent.

Sodom, Gomorrah and Vegas. Great for two days, maybe three; just don’t be there when retribution strikes. It was horrible and glamorous, and a little unreal. One day it would be like Calico

debris from vegas