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Archive for May, 2009

“Er, I’ll take the right and the left, please. Oh, and the bottom, too, if you think it’s appropriate.”

Sorry, I’ve always wanted to say something like that, but once again I just couldn’t pluck up the nerve to say it to today’s stony-faced Kentucky Fried Chicken employee. Especially as he was about to interrogate me on whether I wanted white or dark, my coating classic, grilled or flambeed, and exactly which Pantone shade I wanted it coloured. “Look, just put some protein and lots of greasy fat on a plate and we’ll call it chicken, shall we?”

I set out into a different world today. Yesterday was hot, sunny and arid; this morning I drove under gloomy skies, through lush vegetation and over creeks that actually had water in them. I’d assumed that Junction, Texas, was named after a road or rail junction, but maybe it’s a junction between two universes.

Theocracy for the Masses

Bringing theocracy to the masses

Uh-oh. Rocking chairs on porches, black people in menial positions, humidity, pickups and Paul’s Epistle to the Romans… I’ve a horrible feeling this parallel universe I’ve just entered is called the Deep South.

The gloom has overtaken me today. I’ve had enough now. I want to go home. I want to unpack my bags, put my feet up, know where things are and find my own hairs in the sink. I want to take my eye off the road and sit on a chair, not a bed. I want appliances and tools and books and boundaries. I want to eat real food and not have someone shout “Housekeeping” in a Spanish accent every time I’m about to take a shower.

Oh, no, wait. I don’t have a home to go to. That’s right, I forgot.

All my world is contained in this laptop. All my photos and important documents. All my friends are in there too. I don’t know what I’d do if it broke or got stolen. Imagine what it must be like when you feel that way about the contents of a plastic carrier bag. Being rootless is a lot more unnerving than I would have guessed. I’m glad I found that out, but I want it to stop.

Ah well. I think it’s probably time to stop updating this blog, at least. I’m on I-10 now, which just plummets in a straight line towards Baton Rouge. I’m so dreading going back to Louisiana that I wouldn’t pay any attention to the scenery even if there was any, and so I don’t really have anything left to talk about.

I’ve booked the car in to be fixed on Monday, so until then I’ll just be lurking somewhere far enough away that my wife isn’t likely to bump into me and be embarrassed. And immediately after that I need to be heading for a new life, either by plane or rental truck. I just wish I could make up my mind where that new life should be. I’ll let people know once I’ve sorted things out. It’s all just practical stuff from here on.

Anyway, I just want to say a HUGE, HUGE THANK YOU to all my friends and my family for being so supportive and encouraging over the past few weeks. This blog has been my lifeline to you and it has really made a big difference for me. I’m ever so glad I wrote it. Thanks for tuning in.

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East of the Pecos

The good thing about driving across Texas is that you have plenty of time to think. The roads are as straight as arrows, there is no traffic and there’s nothing to look at. You can steer with one knee, so basically you’re just sitting in a box all day while the scene shifters pack away Carlsbad, New Mexico, and replace it with Junction, Texas.

The other great thing about driving across Texas is… No, wait. Don’t tell me. I had something. It’s… Oh yes, the fact that you have plenty of time to think. Although maybe I already mentioned that.

360 degrees of nothing

360 degrees of nothing

I’m kidding – there were also some mesas with some really nice rock strata. I sat in a road cutting for a while and read the story from the rocks. I’ll precis it for you.

As far as I could make out, nothing much would happen for two or three thousand years, just the gradual accumulation of wind-blown dust. Then a small creek, which fed a warm inland sea to the East and had until that moment been writhing away invisibly to one side, would suddenly decide to snake across the area, cutting a channel and leaving small mudbanks on its edges. And then nothing would continue to happen for another millennium or two.

At one point there was great excitement, as a local earthquake tilted up the ground surface and caused subsequent seasons’ winds to wear it all down again at a slightly different angle. But then the sea moved in and life got a bit dull. If there were intelligent life-forms around at the time and a great, enlightened and long-lasting civilisation had grown up nearby, then there would have been a small brown smudge in the rocks to commemorate it. I didn’t see any, so that probably didn’t happen.

Oh, I was lucky enough to pass through Loving County this morning. According to a pop-up in Google Earth, the seat of local government there is a village called Mentone, on account of it being the only settlement in the entire county. The population of Mentone is a healthy fifteen, presumably making council meetings a rather boistrous affair.

This was definitely ghost town country. Even the living towns I passed through were obviously moribund. Whatever brought people to this area clearly doesn’t cut it any more. Few modern humans can stray far from the oasis that is Walmart.

And it rained today for the first time on this trip. For almost seven seconds. Flooding is not thought likely.

30°30’34.54″N, 99°46’29.87″W

Today’s sensations: I went on this trip to find myself and I haven’t. But it suddenly occurred to me overnight that it’s because I’ve been looking in the wrong place – part of me is in Wells and the other part is in Saint Francisville.

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Well that was six dollars well spent.

Today I went to Carlsbad Caverns, which I’ve wanted to see ever since I first took up caving at the age of eleven. I still have the dog-eared book mum and dad bought me that revealed its existence. It seems like an awful long way to come just to see a cave, but boy was it worth it. Just the entrance passage alone was worth far more than six dollars.

cavern2There are two parts to the cave that you can visit unmolested by tour guides: the natural entrance route is supposed to take about an hour and wandering round the main chamber another hour (although there’s a shortcut in case you’re stupid). Over four hours after I entered I was still gasping out loud as I rounded every corner.

Most people go down a 750-foot elevator, straight from the visitor center to the in-cave restaurant and gift shop, presumably so as to avoid any sensation that they’ve actually descended deep into the bowels of the earth. But I chose to go down the natural entrance route, which is a mile of passages. Just the entrance alone is far bigger than any cave I’ve visited. It was so big I got the feeling  it ought to be in Texas.

cavern3There were very few people going down this way so it was virtually silent, apart from the swifts reeling in the entrance. At one point I found myself stuck alongside a group from Mississippi, who (and I’m not kidding) insisted on saying things like “How d’yall think rock grows upwards like that? Don’t make no sense. Is that a tree inside it?”, but mercifully they took the shortcut to save themselves the mental torture of it all. Most of the time I could just sit and listen to the drips from the stalactites and the blood pounding round my arteries. There was absolutely no-one for half a mile in each direction. It was utterly serene.

cavern 6The main chamber is like being in the middle of a Roger Dean painting. It’s impossible to get across the size of the place in a photograph, especially as my tripod is in Louisiana and nobody would stay still to act as scale. I thought it would be one large oval chamber and we’d have to shuffle round the edges oohing and ahing at twee little stal formations, but no Siree! The place is roughly cross-shaped, and at least a dozen times I rounded a corner expecting to be back where I started, only to discover that I’d hardly even begun to encompass it and there was a stalagmite the size of a small moonrocket staring back at me. To give you some idea, one of the rocks that had fallen from the roof, not of the main chamber but merely the entrance passage, weighed 22,000 tons. You could easily fit Wells Cathedral in the main chamber ten times over and still have room for the marketplace. It was BIG, I tell you.

cavern 14

I almost went out and started the whole tour again, but it was too late. So eventually I dived among the fat people who hadn’t dared to wander very far from the nearest burger and waited for the elevator, which has a display which counts in feet, not floors.

cavern 7

And finally, four hours and 380 photographs later, I emerged blinking into the 98-degree desert sunlight. I’d planned to go on the scenic loop road and do some hiking next, but after that anything else would have seemed an anticlimax, so I rushed straight back here to tell you all about it. Wish you were here.

cavern 13

Location: same as last night

Today’s sensations: Wow! Coo! Jeez! Complete serenity.

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Dangling Mexicans

Back in New Mexico again. I don’t like Texas – as soon as you cross the border it’s all God and guns.

Boo!

BOO!

I’ve relocated to Carlsbad, ready to go see the caverns tomorrow. Boy, you’ve got to remember to fill up with gas around here. I looked at the map and thought there might not be that many gas stations, so I filled up. In the event there weren’t any at all for 200 miles. Practically the only thing I came across was a security checkpoint, where they made sure I didn’t have any Mexicans clinging to the underside of my car.

I had a short hike in the Guadeloupe Mountains but I didn’t have water or food so I couldn’t stay long. The mountains are a Permian coral reef, and it still blows my mind to sit on rocks like that and visualise them underwater, with the corals and crinoids waving their tendrils in the current, and then think that when they actually did that, humans were not going to exist for another 250 million years.

I went straight past the unpreposessing entrance to Carlsbad Caverns National Park because I want a whole day there tomorrow, and drove into Carlsbad itself. I wasn’t terribly impressed until I stumbled upon Lake Carlsbad, close to the middle of town, which is a beautiful turquoise colour. I’ve no idea why – the only times I’ve seen water that colour it has been caused by rock flour ground down by glaciers, and there ain’t no glaciers in New Mexico!

Lake Carlsbad

Lake Carlsbad

32° 8’14.65″N, 104°29’6.24″W

Today’s sensations: I started out feeling serene, as if things were finally getting sorted out. Then my mood bounced around for the rest of the day, trying to dodge a bunch of thoughts that kept throwing themselves against my brain.

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Today I had breakfast in Arizona, lunch in New Mexico and dinner in Texas. And if it wasn’t such a hassle with passports I could pop over the Rio Grande this evening for a Margharita in Mexico.

Tonight I’m in El Paso, which is just inside the Texas Panhandle. It’s continuous with the city of Ciudad Juarez, which is in Mexico. 80% of the population here is “Hispanic or Latino”, as they say in the Census Bureau (which I couldn’t help pronouncing as Thensoos Bureau, after trying to get my tongue around Ciudad Juarez).

It's been a day for mirages

It's been a day for mirages

I almost took a detour to Silver City in New Mexico, to spend a day or two camping, looking at the cliff dwellings, and generally hanging out in the hot springs, but after a few miles I realised I’ve been here three weeks now and I really should be heading back, so I turned round. I want to see Carlsbad Cavern while I’m down here, so I shouldn’t take any more side trips.

I’m in the Wild, Wild West right now. This morning I passed over a granite intrusion, not far from Tombstone, Arizona, the site of the famous bun-fight at the OK Corral gift shoppe and tea rooms, so here’s a photo of the granite for Ann, to remind her of Joshua Tree.

granite2

31°50’24.38″N, 106°34’22.04″W

Today’s sensations: Complete mistrust of my memory of the past. Disappointment that I couldn’t follow my nose to Silver City. Oddly intrigued by all the fanous wild west stuff I’m passing, since I was never at all  interested in cowboys and injuns.

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Honestly. I haven’t even left the room today, except to brave the oven that is southern Arizona and walk (yes, walk!) fifty yards to Wendy’s for a burger. I might have a swim later, but that’s as exciting as it gets. I had 57 emails flagged to reply to, so I’ve been catching up a bit and having a little nap.

Apologies to Nicholas and Tom – I just checked the spam folder for this blog and both of you had sent me messages that got filtered out. But you persevered and I got the info elsewhere.

Since I haven’t posted any interesting photos lately, here are some water pictures for Christopher “fountains of Paris” Grand:

powell

 

boat2

boat1Location: same as last night

Today’s sensations: A distinct reluctance to travel east.

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Not much to report today

That's Tucson down there, although you'd never know

That's Tucson down there, although you'd never know

I stayed in Tucson again today – I felt too tired to go anywhere else. My friend Bill very kindly sent me a list of interesting things to do in Tucson, so, of course, I ended up doing none of them. Serendipity took me instead to Collossal Cave, which, I was very disappointed to discover later, isn’t the eponymous cave in the first ever adventure game. That’s in Kentucky. But it was interesting nonetheless, because I hadn’t been in an American cave before. That sounds silly, but they are a bit different, especially out here in the desert. For one thing it was a steady 70F inside, which is a good bit warmer than British caves. The guide didn’t know which geological period the cave was formed in, but thought it was probably Jurassic or Cretaceous. All British caves are Lower Carboniferous, of course, but the Carboniferous is different in the US – there are two seperate periods, Missisippian and Pennsylvanian, if I remember right. And it was a “dead” cave – the water table had lowered too much after the last Ice Age for stalactites to continue to form. There were some helictites, but they were hard and brown, completely unlike the delicate milky things I’ve seen in “living” caves. So it was all very interesting in an academic sort of way, and I got a feel for how American spelunking differs from British caving, too.

But my biggest treat of the day was hanging out with the two ladies in the gift shop, who were a delight. They spent ages looking for pictures to show me of various desert animals I’d never heard of.

tucson 1

Bill also recommended a better motel, which is nice. It’s cheaper than many of the budget motels I’ve stayed in and yet everything works; even the internet at long last. I spent several hours yesterday in the baking heat trying to steal other people’s wi-fi. I’ve just had a nice swim (the spa, incidentally, is only one degree warmer than today’s air temperature) and there are a couple of beers cooling in the fridge, so I’m set. I’ll probably do some more work on my novel. I may even stay here another night.

32° 9’48.91″N, 110°54’54.22″W

Today’s sensations: I’ve taken to joking with beggars now, telling them that I’m homeless too and maybe we should work together. Except of course I have enough money to live on for a year or more, while they don’t even know where their next meal is coming from (unless they laugh at my jokes, that is). All this angst I’m going through and yet really I’m incredibly lucky in so many ways. I’m ashamed of myself. On the other hand I can see a bit more clearly how quickly and unexpectedly the sands can run out for people, turning a perfectly normal person into a tramp. If I didn’t have some cash in the bank life would be pretty precarious.

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