A hole in the ground

Why, I asked. Why would you want to see the Grand Canyon – it’s just a massive hole in the ground. That said, I did take that detour to see meteor crater, so that in itself makes me a bit of a hypocrite. And I hadn’t been to the Grand Canyon since the early 1990s and back then, when I looked over the edge it was impressive, yes. But I’ve been more impressed by smaller stuff.

IMG_6300 (800x600)On the website, the tour looked amazing. Ah the power of advertising and advertorials. Collected from hotel in Vegas, bussed to airport to catch a plane, then a helicopter, then rafting down the Colorado River, then lunch with the Indians and then back to the hotel via plane and bus. A little over seven hours in total. What wasn’t to like? If you’re going to do something, I say, do it in style.

IMG_6336 (800x600)That I was on the wrong side of the plane going out and didn’t see the Hoover Dam was a tad upsetting and no one’s fault but my own. We were weighed and seated according to weight. That the helicopter ride took all of ten minutes (at a stretch) was a little disappointing. That the rafting was more like a sedate float down the river without shade in 117 degree weather was a trifle discomfiting. That the lunch was bagged salad, frozen veg, packet mash, and a piece of chicken was torturous. All in all, having been picked up at 6.30 am, we’d done it all by 10.30 and didn’t get back to the hotel until after 3. Tired, cranky, and feeling more than a little cheated.

IMG_6334 (800x599)On reflection – was the tour worth it? Absolutely not. Next time (and I’d go again to this huge hole in the ground) I’d drive. And take my time. And pack my own lunch. I’d do the helicopter thing again – but for longer – and only that. Mind you, there were so many choppers in the sky it is a wonder more accidents don’t happen. Apparently someone falls into it every 2-3 months and in a country where Health and Safety are king and queen, there wasn’t a railing in sight. Great for the natural look, I say. Not so great for human stupidity. But the view the from air was magnificent.

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IMG_6339 (800x600)The canyon is 4 to 18 miles wide (6 – 28km) and is 277 river miles long (445km). In places it’s half a kilometre deep. It’s tilted – the northern rim is 1200 ft higher than the southern rim. It took the Colorado River 3-6 million years to carve it out (there’s patience for you!) Over 800 million gallons of water flow through it each day.

IMG_6343 (800x600)I listened to the facts being recited, by rote, both on the recorded spiel on the plane and by the boat guy, and then looked at those walls and wondered at the power of nature. How could we ever think, as mere mortals, that we could tame her?

I’ve spent many an afternoon on the flat of my back on the grass looking up at the clouds in the sky, fancying that I see a pig or a boat or a slice of pizza. I like to do the same with rocks and boulders, and when in South Africa a couple of years ago, I became all too familiar with the Lion Rock  and how deceptive nature’s shapes and shadows can be. So the highlight for me was Eagle Point and the fantastic natural shape of the rock.  That made it all worth while.

IMG_6367 (800x598)The outdoor exhibition of various Indian huts was interesting enough. But my heart went out to the trio who were dancing a tribal dance to an empty amphitheatre. Somewhere along the line, the lines between tourism and taste were crossed. There’s a lot to be said for knowing your audience. And while I would like very much to take part in a real Indian dance night, this was just a tad too twee, even for me.

IMG_6377 (800x600)IMG_6384 (800x600)IMG_6382 (800x600)And yet, had I been there sans the masses, and had I the quiet and the solitude all to myself and a few crows, it would have been quite special. But that’s the Catch 22, isn’t it. Discover and share – or keep to yourself and enjoy.

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From the Danube to the desert – a church on the move

Before the aura reader told me that I should visit the solar plexus vortex, I’d already been. I can’t say I was strangely drawn to it for any reason out of the ordinary. It’s at the site of a church and I’m drawn to churches. Solar plexus or no solar plexus. And this church is a little more unusual than most in that the plans were drawn up long before the site was found and it was originally meant to be built in Budapest. Small world.

IMG_6077 (600x800)Way back in 1932,  a woman by the name of  Marguerite Brunswig Staude was looking at the Empire State Building in New York. Somewhere, in this edifice, she saw a cross. And from this got the idea of building a church that would also have a cross as its core. She showed her design to Llyod Wright and he worked on it with her to further develop it. In 1937, they were ready, and the Chapel of the Holy Cross was to be built in Budapest, Hungary, overlooking the Danube.

IMG_6078 (800x566)But the war came and the dream shattered. But she got to thinking… why not built such a shrine in the USA? Why should Europe have a monopoly on shrines? It would take 24 years for her dream to come true but finally, on a spur 250 feet high that sticks out of a 1000 foot rock wall, Marguerite built her church in Oak Creek, Sedona. Her wish? That the Church might come to light in the souls of men. And so it did, in 1956, the year of the Hungarian revolution.

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Saddened by Sedona

Shop after shop. Mall after mall. Even the outskirts, 20 minutes from the main drag, were joined to the centre by an arterial ribbon of mini-malls, fast-food joints, and gas stations. Yes, it’s all tastefully done. The planners have kept a firm hold on what can and can’t be built in the city of Sedona, but for me it’s lost a lot of its magic.

IMG_6052 (800x590)You can barely see the houses nestling in the foothills, so well do they blend in with their surrounds. Hardware shops in this part of the world don’t do much trade in pastel paints, unlike the West of Ireland or the Venetian island of Burano or the Spanish city of Las Palmas. Here, it’s all muted tones and autumnal palettes. And for that one has to give thanks.

IMG_6091 (800x599)IMG_6096 (800x523)Downtown, once you escape from the main drag, the Tlaquepaque shopping village, originally conceived as an artists’ community, appears to have been around a lot longer than it actually has. A child of the 1970s, these 40 or so shops and galleries look like they’ve taken residence in a hundred-year-old village. There are many European planners who could learn a lesson or two in Sedona.

IMG_6100 (800x600)The main street itself though, leaves a lot to be desired. Overpriced food, half-assed cocktails passing themselves off as Margueritas (beware the newborn expert), and shelf after shelf of sameness was a far cry from what I remembered.

IMG_6103 (800x600)Sedona is famous for its vortexes… and yes, I have that pluralisation correct… in Sedona one vortex, two vortexes. We’d passed a few dust devils as we’d travelled across the Sonora desert, and knew vaguely that a vortex ‘is created from spiraling motion of air or liquid around a center of rotation’. Usually, that is. In Sedona, they’re created from ‘spiralling spiritual energy’. So it’s little wonder that the place is a magnet for new age therapists, mediums, aura readers, and such like. And yes, there was a time I’d have been right there in the midst of it all. But that was then.

I no longer feel the need to know the future – why live through the disappointment twice. But I did have my aura read (and photographed) just to see if my chakras were all open and in good working order. I got a clean bill of health. Lots of white and blue light. Am relatively sane and have a bevvy of spirits working in the wings guarding me night and day. What’s not to like about that?

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Too much to hope for?

Eons ago, when I was an avid Enid Blyton fan, I’d go play in the field behind our house. It had a hole in the ground that to me was huge. Not quite as big as meteor crater, but to my little mind, it was big enough to map. To explore. To get lost in. Me and my neighbour would spend hours there. She always got to be Julian because she was the oldest. I got to be Dick. Neither of us was much interested in being Ann or George and we didn’t have Timmy the dog or bottles of ginger beer. But we had fun.

A few years back, on a whim, I climbed through the ditch at the back of the field and went looking for my crater. It was tiny. So small that I couldn’t really believe I’d ever thought it to be so huge. Memory does that to us. Time does it, too. As does distance. We tend to make things bigger and better than they ever were. Old relationships become sadly perfect. Events become grander. Holidays become more amazing. Few, if any, memories, ever stay true to what actually happened, each one coloured by the prism of the experiences and perspectives that followed.

IMG_6050 (800x600)I’m like that with places. It had been about 20 years since I’d turned a corner in Sedona, Arizona, and been gobsmacked by the redness of it all. The rocks, standing tall and magnificent, daring anyone and everyone to do their damnedest to move them or get past them. And in the midst of the barren landscape, tiny shrubs taking root, as if in challenge. The opening lines of John Donne’s No man is an island came to mind.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main

IMG_6071 (598x800)Mile after mile of red rock bespeckled with the occasional daub of green stretched before us. Just outside the city limits of Sedona, the world was as I had remembered it. As awesome and as beautiful as it was 20 years ago.

IMG_6028 (800x600)The average age hasn’t changed much. With 10 000 year-round inhabitants, the means still stands at 50. But the diversity comes from the millions of tourists who visit every year. I knew it would be too much to hope that the town itself had remained unchanged – that it still had the one main street with a hodge-podge of artisan shops, a hand or two of tarot readers and the faint purple glow of some new age auras. But still, I hoped.

A gaping big hole in my education

What happens when a piece of an asteroid traveling at 26,000 miles per hour crashes into planet Earth? It leaves a big hole. A very big hole. A hole that is  2.4 miles in circumference and more than 550 feet deep.

IMG_6011 (800x599)That all this happened approximately 50,000 years ago is neither here nor there. It’s all been scientifically validated and proven beyond doubt that Meteor Crater, in Arizona, is ‘the most well known, best preserved meteor crater on Earth’. That I’d never heard of it is neither here nor there either. Put that down to me not paying attention in Geography class. But like the millions of other tourists that can’t resist the signage off the I40, I had to go have a look.

IMG_6017 (800x600)Now, I suppose if you’re a space fanatic, a mineralogist, or a geologist, you might get a kick out of it. I’m firmly in the ‘oh, it’s a hole in the ground’ category. Yes it’s impressive, in its own way but it just didn’t do it for me.

I have trouble dealing with time in such great numbers. Anything BC is beyond my limited imagination. Fifty thousand years ago is way too far back to have any impact on my life, at all. It’s a little like temperature. Anything over 25 degrees Celsius is hot. Anyone over 5.10 is tall. My sense of scale leaves a lot to be desired.

IMG_6001 (800x600) (800x600)Until I got to thinking what would happen if some similar piece of stuff hit the Earth tomorrow. What devastation would result from a collision that had the energy of more than 20 million tons of TNT? Is there any part of the world so remote that the damage to human lives wouldn’t be off the charts? And would we see it coming? Or would it be all over before we knew what had hit us?

The mind boggles. Science is boggling. And for the 30 minutes of ‘what ifs’ that ensued, coupled with a repeated resolve to leave nothing unsaid in this lift lest a little piece of rock is already hurtling on its way,  it was worth the detour.

The mother road

I finally got to drive Route 66. Not all of it, just a short stretch, but enough to feel the magic. Dubbed the ‘Mother Road – the road of flight’ by the fictional Joad family in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, this narrow, two-lane road goes from Chicago to Los Angeles (2448 miles in all) and, for the most part, runs parallel with Interstate 40.

IMG_5415 (800x591) (800x591)IMG_5835 (600x800) (600x800)Route 66 0pened on 11 November 1926 in Springfield, MO. Back in the 1930s, it was the path to freedom for many from Oklahoma who went west, dodging the clutches of the Dust Bowl. It has been immortalised by writers like Jack Kerouac. It has been a source of wonder and inspiration for comedians like Billy Connolly. But in the 1980s, it had outlived its usefulness and on 27 June 1985, it was decommissioned, no longer an official US highway. It hasn’t gone away, though, and while it might not be ploughed by snow ploughs during the winter or patrolled by Highway Patrol year ’round, the Mother Road is still very much alive and kicking – and as the t-shirts and fridge magnets declare, many still get their kicks on Route 66.

IMG_6263 (800x600)Like much of the rest of my world (Ireland and Hungary), many small towns thrived from the traffic the route brought. But then, as infrastructure upped a notch or five and freeways and highways and motorways were built, the lifeblood of these small communities was choked at source. In the USA, it was Eisenhower, who in 1956, inspired by the German autobahn he had seen during World War II, began the move to make US highways more efficient. Route 66 was what might be called collateral damage. Now, instead of booming centres of commerce, Route 66 is dotted with tacky souvenir trading posts, fast-food joints, and petrol stations.  There is the occasional gem, though, like Joseph’s Bar and Grill in Santa Rosa, New Mexico.

IMG_5408 (800x600)Here, in 1956, a WWII veteran by the name of José Campos, opened La Fiesta drive-in, which developed into a full-service restaurant within a couple of years. Handed down to the next generation of Campos in 1985, it blossomed under the banner ‘Joseph’s Bar & Grill’. Now home to a gift shop, the restaurant is what any tourist would expect of an American diner. It has struck the right note between tacky and nostalgic and the food is as comforting as diner cooking should be.

IMG_5403 (800x600)It doesn’t stand on ceremony – come in your curlers! This couple, in their eighties, were making their way north to see their kids and were a tad concerned about the possibility of running into wildfires. But they’d resolved to go as far as they could go. Hats off to the tenacity of older Americans, whose ‘live it while you can’ attitude would put many a more delicate European to shame.

IMG_6269 (600x800)Route 66 may have been decommissioned but it still hasn’t lost its magic. Along this very same road hundreds of thousands of people have travelled to better lives. Today, motorbikes and RVs and clapped-out cars make the trip as their drivers search amidst a nostalgic haze for life as it used to be. There’s something so romantic about ‘doing Route 66’ – something I’ve had on my bucket list since I first read Jack Kerouac. And now that I’ve had a taste, the notion has cemented a place in my top 5 things to do before I die – preferably on a Harley.

IMG_5995 (600x800)It’s a treasure of oddness and eccentricity. It’s the home of the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, TX,  the Continental Divide between Brannigan and Parks, AZ, and the Wigwam motel in Holbrook, AZ.  There’s also the Amboy Shoe Tree in California, the steady demise of which chronicles the demise of the route itself. Off to the side, American Indians trade their wares. The crafts of local artisans battle for space with Chinese imports. Billboards line the highway urging travellers not to miss the biggest and the best, each one promising something it can  never hope to deliver. Yet the plight of towns like Amboy are a grave reminder of the price of progress.

IMG_5983 (800x600)Despite efforts to protect America’s first paved highway, Route 66 now features on the Top 100 Most Endangered Sites to Watch – courtesy of the World Monuments Fund. With just 85% of the road still drivable, perhaps I’d better up the ante a little and promote this trip to top of my list.