Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Boulder, Colorado October 12th 
I spent last night in Eagle. It is one of the many settlements that make up Vail Valley, which, along with Breckenridge and Copper Mine are there primarily for the skiing. It is gearing up for the forthcoming season. I got there at about 6.00 and enjoyed my first beer for a few days. I am beginning to tie up a bit with the meeting of locals so a combination of that and the very strict drink-driving laws meant that my visit was necessarily brief. I did get talking to a few people. Andrea and Carol were there with their menfolk, who were engrossed in the American Football. They are both employed primarily in the ski industry, Andrea is an instructor and Carol runs a ski-equipment shop. Their summer activity is breeding horses and they have just sold three foals. Carol’s other hobby is rodeo. Brave. The rodeo season occurs in July and August and she wins several local prizes. Andrea is from Oklahoma originally. She came to Eagle in 1995 for a ski season as a chalet girl and has stayed ever since. They were very chatty and excited at the prospect of snow on the mountains overnight. It generates a huge sense of anticipation. They both agreed that because their punters are principally of considerable means, they are relatively recession-proof. Having said that, they told me that whereas two years ago there were 150 visas available for foreign ski workers, this year there are only 20, so concerned are the local authorities about preserving jobs for US citizens.
I also had a brief and slightly unnerving conversation with a bloke called Mike. He was acting in a distinctly odd manner and, when he went out to the ‘rest room’, the owner told me that he was probably doped up to the eyeballs. He said that he knows Mike well and that he would be ejected fairly soon. I didn’t stay long enough to witness this but in the time I was there it was clear that he found his own conversation more amusing than anyone else in the bar.
I drove the 120 or so miles to Rocky Mountain National Park this morning. It had snowed on the higher ground and, at over 3500 metres, much of the countryside was covered. I had quite a bit of time, for which I was grateful and I am also grateful to be leaving this part of the USA before winter really sets in. It is amazing that 220 miles away as the crow flies is Arches National Park, with a maximum temperature yesterday in the 80s. Such is the range of climate on offer in the mountains.
I didn’t see it at its best. It was cold, the cloud base was sufficiently low to cover the mountain tops, the road that goes up and over the best bits was closed because there was too much snow and it just wasn’t the weather to walk anywhere. I did stop to take some video of grazing elk. They are just at the end of the rutting season when males make their presence felt by bugling ( trumpeting, to you and me ). I wanted to try to get this odd noise as background on the video and so I waited around for a bit, standing beside the car, the door of which was open. This is a habit I have forced myself into after the lock-outs. What I didn’t know was that if the door is left open, after 5 minutes the alarm goes off. So in peaceful scenery the entire body of photographers and sound recorders are treated to the sound of a car horn blaring. Jubbly. I didn’t know where to hide. I did feel marginally less embarrassed when one of them said that he reckoned it was as good an imitation of a rutting elk as he had heard in ages.
I spent the night at some friends of friends. Jeff and Theresa are ex-members of a church run by the brother of a friend from Crowthorne. It was very good to be in a home and I enjoyed supper much more than fast food grabbed between stops. They live in Boulder, which struck me from a very brief acquaintance as being quite different from many of the places I have seen. It is a big university town and possibly because of that, has a transport system that is student friendly. This includes a well-developed local bus network and cycle lanes along all the main roads. Driving through, I also noticed that the pavements were much more crowded. I have been very surprised by the almost total lack of pedestrian traffic in places like Cedar City and Blanding but this is not so much the case in Boulder. They are just very normal and, in common with everyone else I have met. except the immigration people, very friendly. Jeff is an IT whizz-kid and his good offices have enabled me to attach some photographs to previous posts, which I hope you enjoy. I left my mark by elbowing a shelf to the floor and breaking an ornament. I don’t think it was of the same antique value as the plate I destroyed in the Headmaster’s House at Lambrook Haileybury but it was a fairly typical spongly effort.
I am writing this in downtown Denver, where I am spending the morning. It is very  clean ( another common factor in US cities ) but, again, there is nobody on the streets. There are also very few of the sort of stores we would have in our city centres. Starbucks on every corner, lots of fast food, banks, hotels and occasional specialist shops but it doesn’t seem to exist except for those who work above the ground floor in the offices. That, and the free shuttle buses, would probably go some way to explain the lack of pedestrians.
This will probably be my final piece. I am not going to go all navelly and nostalgic but the following may help to sum up. I have learnt much. I have seen lots. I have a deeper understanding and tolerance of the American people. I have been wonderfully protected, without a mobile phone, in some very remote environments. I have been quite comfortable in my own company, save for a brief spell in Cedar City. I could live in Portland.
But I am going to be very glad to be back in Blighty.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Eagle, Colorado October 11th
Yesterday bridges and yah-boo to Sydney, San Francisco, Clifton, The Menai Straits, Millau, Avignon, St John’ College Cambridge and ( an inferior and dilettante imitation, rather typical of the place ) Hertford College Oxford. Today it is yah-boo to Rome, London, Paris, Bucharest, Berlin, St Louis, which I know is tacky but I am in the States, Mumbai and Moscow. There are many others I could include in this category but they are the ones that come to mind. All these locations have at least one well-known but definitely man-made arch. They are usually triumphal, too. A statement of glory and power, through which only the very special may pass, or beneath which an eternal flame burns, or under which an unknown warrior is interred, or the other side of which is new hope and opportunity. I saw 7-8 arches today. All entirely natural, all entirely magnetic, each quite uniquely shaped and spoiled only when there were people standing under them. I walked quite a long way to get to some of them but there were pots of gold at the end of each trek. I can’t get a picture on to this site but if you Google images of ‘Delicate Arch’, you will see what I mean. If I had to look at a landform every day for the rest of my life, this would be the one. It is isolated, quite remote, perfectly formed and will be the screen-saver of choice on my computer when I get back. I have not done this other than at the Grand Canyon, and then not for as long, but I dwelt at Delicate Arch for a good half-hour. It was reasonably early, the crowds had not gathered and it was a good place to be.

I had, unfortunately, chosen Columbus Day for my trip to Arches National Park. There were more people, by far, than at any of the other places and whilst it removed just a little gloss, it also served as a reminder of how fortunate I have been to visit the USA at this time. I spent 5 hours there and walked about 10 miles in total to the arches I visited. I will happily bore anyone who wants to know why there are so many in such a relatively small area on request.
I did stop in Moab for a cup of coffee at 8.00 this morning. I finally met my first Obama supporters in the busy and noisy Red Rock Bakery, run by an American who went to Glasgow University as a post grad. I didn’t know this, to my shame, but Utah is the most staunchly Republican state in the whole of the USA. Moab is the only county in the state to vote Democrat. The other states I have been to, after Oregon and Washington, are also republican. I talked briefly to Jo-Ann who is working on a conservation project in the area, and her partner/companion, Lee, who moved to the area a few months back. Both said that the town was more laid back than most of Utah and I certainly got that feel in the Red Rock Bakery. The brief political overview they gave me was useful in further explaining why I have not met pro-Obama people yet. Their view, echoed by an older bloke on the next door table, is that Obama walked into a maelstrom and is the sort of honest person the country needs to restore faith in traditional institutions. They feel he has been given a very rough ride by the press and that he has been hamstrung by not having a senate majority. Interesting.
I then drove quite some distance to get to Eagle. It is in the Vail valley and there is already snow on the nearby mountain tops. The road follows the Colorado River the whole way from Grand Junction to here. It is a most varied valley, ranging from wide meadows at Grand Junction to a very narrow gorge at Glenwood Springs. So although it was a long way, the only danger was when I was too busy taking in the stunning scenery as opposed to any tiredness.
I had hoped to drive the Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park, NW of Denver tomorrow. Sadly, it looks like there has been enough snow there over the weekend to make it impossible, so I will just drive to the eastern side of the Park before dropping back down to Boulder, where I am staying with some relations of friends from church.
I am now going to go into Eagle for my first beer for nearly a week. It can happen.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Blanding Utah October 10th
There are many settlements that have grown up in the last 150 years that are not well named. Take Ebenezer Howard’s Welwyn Garden City, for instance. It suggests a rural idyll of rolling farmland and hayseeds and a timelessness of landscape. In fact it is an uninspiring collecting of houses, shops and offices. Or Milton Keynes. Now, I don’t know whether there was a pre-existing place of that name on what is now the site of the current town. I don’t think there was. So whoever thought of the name may have had ideas of Paradise to come up with the first part. Maybe the suffix was an acknowledgment of the great economist. I prefer to think that whoever invented it had recently visited Horsted Keynes in East Sussex. There, he or she spent lazy summer days walking through cornfields and pasture with the only interruption coming from the whistle and rhythmic puffing of the engines on the Bluebell Railway. This was the image the town planner had in mind when setting out to construct what has turned out to be an even bigger and even less inspiring collection of houses, shops and offices. How about my recent temporary location, Cedar City? It has no cedars on view and is not big enough to be a city. And, for good measure, it makes Milton Keynes look like paradise.
There are others that evoke stronger images. North of here lie Moab and Monticello. Moab suggests it was established for outcasts. Maybe there was an apostate wing of the Latter Day Saints, who were expelled from Salt Lake City after falling out with Brigham the Bigamist and decided to set up there. Monticello sits snugly in the valley below Manti-Sal, an old volcanic cone rising above the surrounding Colorado plateau like a pimple on a teenage chin ( have I used that one before about Mt Hood? ). ‘Mountain of string quartets playing gently in the evening’ is what it says to me. Ooh-aah, lovely. South of here is Bluff. I hope it was called Bluff by the gun-slinger who first settled down there, able to do so because he won a huge pot in a game of poker holding only a nine-high while his opponent folded a pair of kings.
Nowhere I have stayed, however, is quite so well named as Blanding. I have met some locals but only had the briefest of exchanges. They are honest, well-meaning, religious and industrious people. But, come on, loosen up a bit. When the top action in town on a Saturday night, like last night, was to be found in the local Subway outlet, when the nearest thing to architecture is the local information centre ( discounting the obvious relative grandness of the LDS church building ), when 90% of the commercial land use is motels, garages and fast food outlets, and when the top story in the local newspaper is that someone’s fence has burned down, it can only be described as bland.
I did get to Blanding First Baptist Church today. There were about 40 in the congregation. A couple of large families ( 11 children between them ) and the rest a collection of the halt, lame and Navajo, in some cases a combination of two of those and in a couple of cases a full house. I had to introduce myself, inevitably, at the beginning of the largely informal service. This was led by pastor Mike, a cattle farmer, who calls himself a cowboy, from Cortez, 60 miles away. The service followed familiar lines, with some songs and then the word was preached. There is no pianist but they use CDs of songs being sung by the pros and the congregation joins in. It wasn’t too bad. My Jeff Lucas bible-notes this a.m. were about Luke 51-8 and James 122-25. Oddly enough, so was pastor Mike’s message. I didn’t mention it but have the feeling that I should go back over what is there and be very specific in applying it to myself. They were all very welcoming and I lingered for a cup of coffee. The couple I spoke to, John and Abigail were renegade LDS. This has caused a huge issue in their families. Life does get difficult where religious beliefs are concerned, doesn’t it? I know what I believe is right but then so does the Mormon, Muslim and Jew. All the men in the church were wearing jeans. It is the material of choice for 90% of occasions but I was a bit surprised. John explained that it was a badge of honour as jeans are not allowed in many LDS churches. They don’t feel comfortable wearing them on Sunday, after being brought up not to do so but are determined to make it a statement.
I then drove 50 miles or so to the Natural Bridges National Monument and I am very glad I did. It does not qualify as a full National Park because it isn’t big enough but the landforms were, once again, well worth the effort in getting to them. Within a couple of miles of canyon floor are Three Bridges. Not the ones from Sussex, always abbreviated to ‘Bridges’ when referring to them. No, these are 3 natural spans across canyons. It is a bit of an effort to climb back up from the canyon floor each time ( the canyon is impassable in places ) having seen them but these are top landforms and so it was well worth the mileage. There is a whole piece to write about the iconic nature of bridges and why we think they are good things but these natural ones seem to cock a snook at the efforts mankind has made to show how clever we are at overcoming big obstacles like rivers. They have a beauty all of their own and put anything man-made in total shade.

It was sunny all day but there is a definite chill in the air. I have almost forgotten that I am currently nearly 2000m above sea level ( as I have been ever since Mt St Helens, incidentally ) but morning frost is now a regular event and the first snow of winter cannot be far off. It looks like it won’t happen while I am in town, however, which is just as well as the Hyundai Elendra is not built for those conditions.
Last big drive tomorrow. So far 3,500 miles in 13 days.
Blanding Utah October 9th
I have taught/do teach about St Helens, Yellowstone and Arches. I know/knew that Zion, Bryce and Grand Canyons are spectacular. I was aware that Mesa Verde was a historical gem. So I was expecting not very much when it came to today’s trip to Canyonlands. How wrong. The park covers a huge area and the main attraction, as the name suggests, is a line of canyons that runs parallel to the Colorado River. None of them are on the scale of the Grand Canyon but the landforms are both varied and interesting. Yes, it is more sandstone. Yes, it is more red/vermillion cliffs. Yes it is more pinnacles, buttes and mesas. The volume and variety of them in a single area is probably unsurpassed, however, even if the majority of them are only accessible with 4WD or on long, overnight hikes.
I only got to one area, known as The Needles. It consists of a ridge of red and white sandstone that has been eroded into a series of superb, rounded pinnacles. It was a three hour round trip on foot and a longer walk was something I was grateful to have had the opportunity to do. It generates a greater sense of achievement on reaching the goal and also gives a feeling of being more in touch with the surrounding environment on the way. On the way there were several deer, lizards and small rodents. Fortunately there were no rattlesnakes or cougars. I was only made aware of the existence of the latter on my return to the visitor centre, where I spent 30 minutes finding out how the whole area was formed. I would have felt a bit more nervous walking on my own had I known in advance, so it was probably as well.
I am lamentably under-equipped for walking. I have my walking boots but no backpack, means of communication in an emergency or water container. It wasn’t that hot, thank goodness, so my weedy half-litre water bottle was just about enough.
When I got to the obvious viewpoint for The Needles, a big rock looking out over the plateau into which the canyons are carved, there were about 40 people there. I thought they all just happened to be there, so climbed up to join them and take some pictures. One bloke, dressed in a smart tweed jacket and neat trousers, then approached me and asked if I would mind moving elsewhere. I was a bit put out internally but said nothing ( golly I need to learn to do that more often ). I was glad I hadn’t when he went on to explain that I had inadvertently crashed a wedding ceremony. Hilarious. I moved a little way off and as I did, the bride, dressed in a dress and heeled shoes, appeared with her bridesmaids from behind a clump of nearby bushes, where I think they had changed into their smart clothes. The priest ( or whatever LDS call their blokes in charge ) then got on with ‘dearly beloved’ etc..

I could bore everyone to tears with the geological, tectonic and erosional history that lies behind the Canyonlands but will only do so on request on my return. Don’t say I don’t know who is bothering to read these offerings.
Sunday tomorrow. Nothing except LDS places of worship locally. I will try to find something, not least because I’d like to experience it. I then intend to do a low mileage trip to the Natural Bridges National Monument and, possibly, to Glen Canyon, on Lake Powell. Then it will be Arches Monday, on the way to Denver Tuesday, leaving Wednesday night, home Thursday afternoon.
And a pint Thursday evening.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Blanding Utah October 8th
I have decided to stay here for the next few nights. Not because Blanding has anything especially to commend it, you understand. Far from it. The place is not merely barless but dry, arid and parched, in every respect. It is virtually all LDS. Those that are not are almost all Navajo, whose main religion is Christianity of either the mainstream type or completely wacky. The Navajo Reservation is just south of here. Some of the other indigenous population are from the Ute tribe. Their reservation is south-east of Branding. The girls on reception are both Navajo. They are totally integrated and consider themselves American first and tribe members second. That is not to say they are at all apologetic about their history, far from it. They are 95% certain to marry Navajo men and will pass on the oral and written traditions they had passed to them by their mothers. I had thought that there was enormous resentment amongst the tribes over the way they were forced to settle in designated areas, which were often hugely under-resourced. This is not the case with the Navajo people. They were fairly widely dispersed in the area of North Arizona and Southern Utah and have ended up with land that they feel is home. I have yet to discover whether they are able to exercise any political or financial autonomy.
The average Navajo female has, without wishing to be judgemental or inconsiderate, sound child bearing dimensions. I suspect this is considered a delicacy amongst the Navajo males. They live in scattered rural communities, or alongside the followers of Brigham the Bigamist in towns. The buildings in the rural areas look like those normally associated with a research station in, say, Grytviken. Again, I have yet to discover whether this is by accident or design.
Blanding’s only significant advantage is a geographical one. It lies neatly between three National Parks. Mesa Verde, Canyonlands and Arches. Of the three, Arches is the one I most want to get to. I have taught stuff relating to it for many years and the landforms are extraordinary. It is on the way to Denver from here, so I will probably go there on Monday.
I went to Mesa Verde today. It is famous for some remarkable Pueblo Indian cave dwellings. I was very pleased to have got there as I doubt if there is very much like it anywhere else in the world. The dwellings are built into natural alcoves, in otherwise near vertical cliff faces, which have been formed as water has seeped out between layers of sandstone. The Pueblo used rocks and stones to make some fairly advanced constructions, perched precariously on ledges. If I could work out how to include pictures in the blog, I would do so.

I have to confess that in the absence of anything much else in the evening, I have begun to follow the baseball play-offs. I still think it is a ridiculous game but there is some considerable entertainment value. Crowd scenes are my favourite. Not much evidence of polite applause and cucumber sandwiches. Raucous shouting, hot-dogs and fancy dress are the order of the day. Which I suppose, on reflection, describes the West Terrace at Headingly from about 1.30 onwards and the Holmesdale Road End every Saturday.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Blanding Utah October 7th
I didn’t quite mean to get this far on the road. It just worked out that way. I must have driven the best part of 400 miles, way more than I really wanted to.
I got up early and went straight to the Grand Canyon. The forecast was good for the morning and deteriorating as the day went on. I am very glad I did. The sun shone, although the air was distinctly autumnal. I wonder what the adjective derived from ‘fall’ is? It can’t be ‘fallal’. ‘Fallish’? I have just asked the people on the next door table in the restaurant where I am going to treat myself to a steak and they don’t have much of an idea. Actually they don’t seem to have much idea of anything, given that the three of them have not exchanged a word for the 20 minutes I have been here.
I have felt underprepared on many occasions in my life. It sort of comes with the teaching territory. There are fewer occasions when I have felt that what I have been expecting has been way short of reality. Like in 1985, when Andrew Wingfield-Digby asked me to do an assembly at a girls school in Bangalore. ‘How many will there be?’ I asked. ‘About 2-300’, said Andrew in his usual insouciant way. So I turn up with an idea, but not much more, hoping to wing it by getting them to ask questions. On arrival there is a playground, with a small stage and a microphone and an ocean of expectant faces, all dark, all female. About 2-3000 of them. From 5 schools, all given time off to listen to my talk, at that point just a vague idea in the mind. Thanks mate. Anyhow, I have heard much of what people say about the Grand Canyon. I have seen loads of pictures. But nothing, absolutely nothing, zilch, zero, zip, nix, nihil could prepare anyone for the first look across the chasm. It is unbelievable that anything could exist on that scale and no picture, film or description could ever do it justice. I’m not even going to try. Just get there before you die and if you want to do it the most stylish way, stay at the Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim. The North Rim is not the commercialised bit. No tat shops, no flyovers, not much in the way of catering and not many people, as a result. If you want that go to the South Rim. With a fat walletful.

I went to 3 look out points. Fortunately all were fenced off but there are many places which are not. I an ideal world it should be two or three days with walking gear but I haven’t got that long, so I gave it three hours. A colleague of mine described her experience at the Canyon as ‘spiritual’. I wouldn’t quite go that far but it was certainly awe-inspiring.
The next door people have just asked me what I have done today. Having told them, I was interested to discover that they have been at Grand Canyon Lodge for three days. Apparently the weather was every bit as foul as it has been in Cedar City. It got so bad on Tuesday, the day of my aborted trip to Bryce, that the power went out at 5.15 and was not restored until last night. I am glad I did not go there on spec yesterday.
I had intended to stay at Kayenta, at the SW end of Monument Valley. However, all the hotels were of the $150/night variety, so I drove through the valley, with some stops. It was the right thing to do because once the road has passed a great line of ridiculously shaped blocks and pillars, that is about it. I am probably guilty of becoming blasé about sandstone, semi-arid landscapes, having said that. There was some fantastic stuff to look at all day long and the drive was anything but boring.  
So now I have ended up back in Utah, in barless Blanding. It is going to be well-nigh impossible to meet any locals but I am not that fussed. I’ll watch some more baseball and dip out.
It is just so good to be away from Cedar City. The best I can say about it rhymes nicely.
Cedar City October 6th
It has been another pretty dreary day. The rain finally stopped at about 3.00 but that was too late to get anywhere near Bryce Canyon. I have finished a book. I have done a couple of crosswords from the compilation book given to me by Wellington Common Room. I browsed in a second hand bookshop. I took some video of Cedar City in the rain. I watched some baseball, in which Roy somebody-or-other achieved a no-hit perfect pitching performance for the Phillies. About which I have as much clue as the average American would about bowling a string of maidens in succession.
Now that the weather has cleared a bit, I think I am going to get up early tomorrow and make an attempt to get to the Grand Canyon. If it doesn’t work out, I can bypass it given the route I have in mind. It just seems a shame to be within 150 miles of it and not to give it a go.
There are two bars in Cedar City, population around 12,000 people. I visited one last night and met Scotty and Matt. Scotty was born on Islay and came over with his parents in 1950. He moved to California and came to Cedar City via Las Vegas. As you do. He still owns the house that belonged to his parents on Islay. He has three daughters aged 41, 39 and 10, having been married four times. I didn’t ask but it may explain his movements. He fancied himself as a bit of a wit which, if you like slapstick, he is. I am not a fan of slapstick. He could not have been more friendly, though, and I felt it was important that I indulged him. With his prominent gnashers, he might do a brilliant Ken Dodd impression but it wasn’t part of his repertoire and I didn’t want to offend him by suggesting he added it.
Matt is his lodger and is out of work. Just in parentheses, it is odd that I have met so many who are out of work in bars. Those who are gainfully employed don’t seem to want to spend their own money but the unemployed seem comfortable blowing their welfare. I had a very interesting conversation with him about gun laws. He told me that part of why it is so dear to Americans goes right back to the time when the British banned anyone else from having weapons in the 1770s. He owns an AK-47, if you please. So I was deferentially nice to him. He uses it for popping off at cans and bottles, when he can afford the ammunition. Again, as you do.
Both were coruscating about Obama. I have yet to meet anyone who supports him. I know that my political sources are the sort of useless people like me who hang around in bars, so it is not necessarily a representative sample. Even so, the depth of anti-feeling is extraordinary. An oft repeated allegation is that having come in on a ‘Mr Clean’ ticket, so many of his potential appointments have been scuppered by revelations of jiggery-pokery, either financial or moral.
I should have more to write about tomorrow. I think if the car survives the journey ( and there is absolutely no reason why it shouldn’t), I will feel that I have done the bulk of it. There will be no more very long drives.
There is a golf gag there but it is late and I’m up early, so I won’t even try.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Cedar City October 5th
It rained heavily all night. So much so, that I decided to do Bryce Canyon, a 160 mile round trip, rather than the 300 mile round trip to the north rim of the Grand Canyon. I left windy but dry conditions in Cedar City. I drove a few miles into the mountains. The river in the canyon, which the road to Bryce follows, was flowing quickly, a brick red colour, full of fine sandy sediment washed into it from the slopes above. As I started to climb, the rain turned from a fine drizzle to something more persistent. The road was OK, provided great care was taken to avoid rocks which had been washed on to it by the deluge. Sandstone, for the uninitiated, absorbs so much water but then simply splits apart. At a couple of points, I felt distinctly nervous driving under sheer rock faces. It did open out, eventually, having reached the top of the river’s course, when I assume I had made the plateau above. I say ‘assume’ because the cloud cover was such that it was difficult to see more than a few hundred metres. When the rain began to turn to sleet and I knew I had more height to attain, discretion took over and I turned back. Mountain country is no place to be in a small saloon car when conditions deteriorate. I guess it is why the vehicle of choice here is a big pick-up truck or a 4WD.
So I resigned myself to having one of those days, so familiar to anyone who has been on a cricket tour in England, when the best laid plans have to be abandoned and other activity takes its place. The problem is that Cedar City is not full of options for other activity. I eked out a coffee in Starbucks and a Caesar salad lunch in a deli. I came back to the motel and read some of a book. I went to watch a film. Case 39. Big mistake. It starred Rene Zellweger, Ian McShane and Adrian Lester, which looked promising, given the roles they have played so far. If I had chosen to watch any film, this would have been the last one. It turned out to be a cross between The Omen and Don’t Look Now, without the location, music, Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie.
I am not even going to try Bryce tomorrow. It is still raining and I glimpsed some snow on the mountains earlier this afternoon between showers. I am 95% certain I won’t get to the Grand Canyon either. The roads leading to it are very like the one to Bryce Canyon and I am not going to risk breaking down somewhere remote. The forecast is for it to keep raining tonight and tomorrow with a slow clear-up starting on Thursday. Friday looks reasonable and Saturday and Sunday look fine. There are, in short, more important things.
So I am stuck here until Thursday a.m. Bored and feeling quite a long way from anything I could call familiar. One of the things I wanted to achieve during the sabbatical was to exist for a time out of my comfort zone. I did not think it would come to pass in this particular location, in what is supposed to be a semi-arid climatic region. I guess I’ve just got here for the semi bit.
I will drive to Monticello on Thursday and take my time about it. I am going to attempt to get to Mesa Verde, which has the old Pueblo Indian settlements cut into the rock faces, on Friday, do the circular tour of Monument Valley, which has the landscape of tall columns ( buttes, I think ) and flat topped mesas, such as those familiar with Road Runner cartoons would recognise, on Saturday and Arches on Sunday before getting back towards Denver on Monday. I have organised to stay with some friends of friends from church on Tuesday night in Boulder, which is just north of Denver.
All long trips have highs and lows. This spell is just one of the latter. I can’t complain because it has been much more high than low so far. The trick has to be to take it on the chin, appreciate that family and friends are infinitely more valuable than anything else in life and to make as many jokes about it as possible.
I did get talking to the bloke who runs the place where I am staying. He is an Indian. The sort who comes from Ahmedabad, I should stress, not of indigenous American descent. Just in case you are worried, I did not go near that sort of gag in conversation. He has been here for 22 years yet still sends back some of his monthly income to his wider family in India. His children, who play outside between the rainstorms, sound just like any other American children. When I asked him how he felt about that, he said it was the main reason he came over here. He did so in a way that said ‘that’s enough personal revelation for now’. The conversation would have ended there had I not mentioned that India had beaten Australia in a very close Test Match. That prolonged it for a good 5 more minutes, even though I got the feeling there were pressing family matters to attend to, judging by the urgency of his wife’s repeated summons from behind the connecting door to his office.
You can’t help but admire that sort of bottle, commitment to what businesses like to call ‘core values’ and, of course, an appreciation of the finest of all games.
If I was not expecting to be holed up for three days by bad weather, I much less expected to be talking cricket in Southern Utah
This trip continues to throw up the most unusual surprises.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Cedar City, Utah October 4th
It was ever so slightly disappointing today. The weather has turned and it rained for most of the afternoon. I had driven to Cedar City in the morning through the odd shower but as soon as I got half way to Zion National Park, it became very dark and stormy.
It doesn’t worry me in any other respect save that two of the jewels in the National Park crown are the next two on my list, i.e. the Grand Canyon tomorrow and Bryce Canyon on Wednesday. I have about 3 hours each way to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and I don’t want to get there to find the whole place shrouded in cloud.
That said, I am very glad I did visit Zion. The limited number of photos and brief video clips will not do it the same justice as would have been the case had there not been rain and cloud. It meant that all the contrast was missing and I gather that in sunshine the huge cliffs, which make up the valley walls, reflect a stunning array of colour.
I am going to attempt to describe it but if you want a decent look, I suggest you google Zion canyon and select images.
The canyon floor is about 2500 metres wide at the entrance and gradually narrows all the way up to Navajo Lake. The canyon is occupied by the Virgin River which drops some 4000 metres in the process. The valley is wooded and shaded by a variety of pine and aspen trees which, at this time of year, demonstrate the entire spectrum from yellow, through orange, to red and finally brown.
The extra wow-factor that ensures its National Park status is given by the valley sides. These are virtually sheer faces of sandstone of different colors, reflecting the varied chemistry of their formation. The Great White Throne is the second biggest monolith in the world and towers over 800 metres above the canyon. The Three Patriarchs stand sentinel near the canyon entrance. Angels Landing is a flat topped, 750 metre high slab of vivid red. On a day such as today, water, having landed on the top of these bare rocks and with nothing to halt its progress, obeys gravity by plunging vertically towards the valley. The whole effect is as if thick ropes have been placed on the valley walls to assist climbers.

It was discovered and colonized by, you’ve guessed it, The Mormons in the 1860s, hence the Biblical names. They thought the whole place was just as a temple should be, hence the Zion.
I was very glad to have made the effort but will go better prepared for cold and rain tomorrow.
I did meet a couple of people. Mary and Arnold sat with me on the shuttle bus ( the canyon is a car free zone ) on the way down. They are here from West Virginia. He is a retired attorney. They have a daughter in Weybridge, which is coincidentally local, married to a son-in law who makes and sells components for wind turbines. His current big contract is in Rumania and they are going out there next summer for a bit of Transylvania. 
Long drive tomorrow, short Wednesday, long Thursday and then, I hope no more than 3-4 hours a day. So far, so good, but the next bit is by far the most taxing.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Provo, Utah, October 3rd
For the first time since the drive from Naches to Missoula I didn’t do much other than get from A to B yesterday. ‘Montpeelyer’ to Provo, just south of Salt Lake City. I had intended to go to church but this is very much Latter Day Saint country and there was not a Presbyterian or Baptist church in sight. Provo is not anything to write home about. It is just another settlement off the freeway.
I enjoyed the drive across. I almost need a video recorder on permanently to convey the scenery. I passed Bear Lake on the west and then up and over Mount Logan. The deep valley on the descent would have been worthy of National Park status in the UK but it is just another deeply wooded canyon over here. The Rockies are what they say they are, too. Mountains. Not just hills. Within them, though, are several wide valleys, such as the ones containing Bear Lake and Salt Lake. The mountains flank these like walls and roads connect the valleys through steep passes. I keep taking photographs of lakes and mountains but they all look remarkably similar.
It looks like I may not quite do the same amount of small town America in the next week. I am staying 3 nights in Cedar City, whilst doing the three nearby national parks and will probably stay 4 nights in Monticello after that. It is near Arches, Monument Valley, Canyonlands and Mesa Verde.
I went to an all you can eat for $12 in the evening. I am mightily impressed with the service. Not knowing my way round what was on offer, or the form in availing myself of it, I asked one of the waitresses what was what. She gave me a one-to-one guided tour. The girl who was in charge of the table I ended up at was similarly attentive and I noticed it went for all those in my area. I know it is a cliché about quality of service but it is true, all the same.
And boy, do they like sweet things. Almost everything is possible to consume with added sugar. Milk, bread, a variety of sauces and probably the sugar itself comes with added sugar. The only thing I couldn’t get at the restaurant was a non-sugared drink. It was coke or fizz.
I am writing this with the Ryder Cup on in the background. It is most interesting to watch the US coverage.  I guess it is exactly the same in reverse at home. Lots of home team focus and attention given to home successes, whilst glossing over the losses. It is all getting a bit too close.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Montpelier Idaho October 3rd
I hung around in Jackson this morning. I have made quite good progress and will probably get to the Grand Canyon/Zion/Brice area in a couple of days, which should leave plenty of time. So I didn’t push the driving either, only doing just over 100 and got to Montpelier at about 4.00.
They pronounce it Montpeelyer.  The ‘t’ is sounded, so it is quite different to the way we might say ‘monpayez’. Up the road ( like about 300 miles ) is Boise, which is pronounced like Del Boy’s mate Boycey, except the ‘c’ is an ‘s’. We might say ‘boys’ or ‘bwahze’.
I had some supper in the local deli at about 6.00. Really good time. Molly runs it with Harve. She made a mean beef salad while Harve dealt with the hot orders from the five other diners. They have run the show for 6 years and it is the most unprepossessing of exteriors but clearly a local treasure. Heber and Susan were two of the locals. He used to be a rancher of dairy stock ( = cattle ) until the big organisations took over production 20 years ago and he lost the lot. He moved into construction but dabbles now and Susan taught elementary grade until last year. They were really friendly and were very keen to find out all about my travels. They have travelled a bit within the USA but never out of it and were envious of the time and space I have been given. They have 5 children who all live either in Idaho or Utah. He enjoyed a large lump of meat and salad and washed it down with two definitely not diet cokes. Brandy came in with her two kids for a take out. She is a regular and was wearing the T-shirt to advertise the joint. Her husband is currently in Afghanistan, completing his third tour of duty. He has done 18+ years in the army and is due to retire in 18 months time. I asked her how she coped. She said she found the initial going away difficult but sort of got used to it and has her own ( unelucidated and I did not want to ask ) survival mechanisms. She was in the army herself and says she probably finds it easier than many other wives as a consequence. The two others were Dick and Karen, on their way to Yellowstone from Fresno in California. They are retired but he has some ‘interests in farming and had a boot load of tomatoes and peaches to prove it. I would not pack those if I were travelling that far but he reckons that it helps to oil any wheels if he can dish some out to the hoteliers.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable hour and I really liked the mix of people. Dick and Karen retired, educated, wealthy. Brandy and kids, local and very positive in what I would consider very trying circumstances. Heber and Sue, large, jovial and not angry about the hand they have been dealt. Harve and Molly just providing cheerful and homely service.
I also bumped into James, who is the deputy manager at the place I’m staying. He is 58 and comes complete with baseball cap and pony tail. He lost everything in 2004 and was on the road in Montpelier trying to hitch a lift with his dog, aiming to get to South Carolina ( 2500 miles away ), where his relatives all live. It was winter and freezing and the police persuaded the owner of this motel to give him a bed for the night. He has been here ever since.
The weather is on the way out. It will be wet tomorrow at times, so I don’t plan to push too hard. My aim is to get to southern Utah/ northern Arizona by Monday night, to give myself a good 3-4 days there before turning north-east to Arches, Monument Valley and then Denver.
I see Palace went down to yet another injury time goal. It also seems, amazingly, that it isn’t raining in Newport, which it has every single time I’ve been there.
I forgot to mention one amusing incident in Yellowstone. I was in the Visitor Centre when a woman asked one of the rangers for the difference between a buffalo and a bison. When I told her that she couldn’t wash her hands in a buffalo, I got a very odd look. The ranger merely rolled his eyes.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Jackson Wyoming October 2nd
Breakfast was excellent. I turned up at Bonnie’s mobile home at 8.00 and she popped her head out of the door. ‘Come right on in’, she said and proceeded to introduce me to the other members of her family. It turned out there were 10 of them, occupying three mobile homes. 88 year old Ned and his wife Margene have nine children. Those nine have 36 between them. Those 36 have 112 children and those 112 have 15 children so far. That makes 174, in total, when they have a family get together.  They do that once a year, often by taking over an entire campsite. None of those present batted a single eyelid at my appearance. It is, evidently, a regular thing of Bonnie’s. She was unable to explain why I was the recipient of her hospitality, except that I happened to be in the right place at the right time. All Ned and Margene‘s nine have names beginning with K. I met Kim, Kevin, Kent and Kara. One of the great grandchildren, Aubree ( sic, female ), had time off because there is a local holiday in Idaho, where her family live, for potato picking. They were all hugely welcoming. I was glad that I didn’t bad mouth Missoula, as it turned out that Kevin and Sandi live there. I was also cagey about anything religious and was glad that I had been when it transpired the family are staunch LDSs, i.e. Mormons. I ate waffles, sausages, easy over eggs x 2, scones and coffee. Not bad and, as you will realise, enormously providential given the rest of the day.
I did the Old Faithful southern end of Yellowstone, having been lucky to have seen the classic Yellowstone scene of bison grazing against a backdrop of steaming springs on the way there. All the geyser activity is impressive and I will need to be asked, rather than offer description. I have been extremely blessed with the weather, apparently.

I drove south from Yellowstone. I stopped a couple of times at viewpoints before going into Teton National Park. The Tetons are another snow-capped range and at one point I stopped to take a shot of them across some grassland and a bit of Jackson Lake. And locked the keys in the car again. The first time was forgiveable, as the car locks automatically when the driver door is shut, which no car I have ever owned does. This time was silly. It was not a good location. A bloke whose wife had gone for a stroll did his best with a coat hanger. Another very helpful bloke from Michigan, on a similar type of trip, phoned AAA, with whom I took out insurance in Portland. Eventually they said someone would be there in 30-75 minutes. After an hour and a half, I was becoming a bit anxious. Another very helpful couple phoned them again and it turned out they had a completely different idea of where I was than where I actually was. They then put the correct GPS reference into their operation and told me it would be three hours until someone could get to me. So I settled down to wait, nervous about the prospect of waiting that long, with fading light, 7000 feet above sea level and wearing only a polo shirt and jeans. At that point, one other family van pulled in. They had spotted a moose and were keen to photograph it. They also had another suggestion, which was to phone the Teton National Park Information Centre. They did this and within 15 minutes a ranger had come and done the business. I drove to Jackson, the first town south. I tried the number I thought was for AAA from a public call box.  It turned out that it was the number of the car rental company, who had closed for the day. So it is possible that some bloke has driven three hours to find me and I am not there. Now that does cause me some stress. I expect, when I drop the car off in Denver, that there will be several questions to answer. AAA insurance is like AA membership, so it shouldn’t involve more than cross words but I am not looking forward to it.
So I have retired to an overnight lodging and am not going to go out tonight other than to get some food from the local supermarket.
A very good morning but not so hot in the afternoon.
And I will carry the burden of responsibility for a AAA breakdown operative for some years.
Golly, it looks wet at Celtic Manor.

Friday, 1 October 2010

ENNIS Montana October 1st
ENNIS has turned out to be a genuine let down. I dropped into the SALOON briefly to find a few twenty-somethings taking tequila shots with their drinks, so I didn’t stay. The sign says that the population is 840 humans and 11,000,000 trout. I’d rather be a trout.
Today was Yellowstone. It was brilliant. The hot springs were all they needed to be ( Old Faithful tomorrow ), the falls were better than the pictures, the mountains were proper mountains, the sun shone all day and I had the immense good fortune to tick bison, elk, bighorn sheep and a bear. The geographers will get bored with me, I fear.

I had my first real ‘moment’, too. I got out of the car at Canyon Village, right in the middle of the park, and discovered seconds later that my keys were still inside. The car was locked. I was lucky in that it happened where there was a big visitor centre. They radioed one of the rangers, who spent 10 minutes wiggling, now, don’t titter..implement and the car was duly unlocked. Those of you who know my propensity to hit the panic button in such situations will be amazed to know that I felt no anxiety at any time. I put it down to the fact that a) I was on my own and my action affected nobody else and b) I was under no time pressure. You can only imagine the scene had it happened with the family in tow and a deadline to meet.
The most remarkable thing happened on my way out of the park. There was a 10 minute hold up while a queue of cars waited at a contraflow signal. About 5 minutes into it, a woman appeared at my window. ‘Do you want to come and eat with us?’ she asked, adding that she and some friends were staying in a campsite just down the road. I was completely thrown. What would possess someone to ask a total stranger to dinner? What conversation must there have been with her and her husband and friends in the car behind? Why did she choose me and not the car in front? These and many other thoughts ( mad axe-people, religious nutcases etc ) hurried through my head as I computed an answer. I gave a non-committal response, along the lines of having to get back to ENNIS by dark and it being really kind of them. Anyhow, I went back to the car behind and was introduced to the husband and friends. They were all over 60 and very well fed. So I have agreed to drop in for some breakfast at 8.00 tomorrow. The more I think about it, the more strange it seems but my antennae picked up no bad vibes from the group, who just seemed to be a lot of happy, retired friends who were anxious to be hospitable. Her name is Bonnie and her husband says she is the best cook in the business. His waistline would concur.
In a nutshell, I did the northern of the two park loops today and will do half of the southern one tomorrow before heading south. I am told that the Tieton Mountains are a must, so will go that way. After a huge breakfast, I hope.