Archive for the ‘Arizona’ Category

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.


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:




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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One of those days

Well, that’s another relationship gone west. I fell out with Susan, my satnav, today. She really made a hash of things in Tucson. It didn’t help that most of the freeway ramps were closed, but even so, at one point she actually got stuck in a loop in the middle of downtown and sent me round in circles, which I’d never have believed possible. So it’s over between us.

Today has been one of those days. My plan, such as it was, was to drive to Tucson and camp for a couple of nights in the Coronado National Forest, which covers the Santa Catalina Mountains, just to the east of the city. The first problem was finding them. Susan got in a real muddle and I found Tucson very confusing, which is odd considering it has a standard grid pattern. I always seemed to end up in the wrong lane and had to overshoot almost every junction. But eventually I found my way to the mountains, which is when the next problem arose.

It’s 103F today (almost 40C),  and at these temperatures you have to take life a bit seriously. I didn’t have any way to keep water cold, let alone myself. So I started to climb the mountain, heading for cooler air. But even at more than 4,000 feet it was still 96 degrees, and by the time I got to the automated fee payment area I just couldn’t decide whether to risk paying my money and then drive another 20 miles, only to find that the campgrounds were still blisteringly hot, had no shade and cost extra (there was no information and no-one to ask). So after a bit of humming and hahing, I turned around and drove back into the now traffic-jammed Tucson to find a motel.

I cleverly headed south to hit I-10, so that I’d be on the right side of town to get out of it as quickly as possible in the morning. This involved driving through an airbase, which was the only interesting part of the day. There were literally hundreds of planes on the tarmac, with their windows covered, waiting in suspended animation until the apocalypse finally arrives.

On reaching the Interstate I confidently headed the wrong way, away from the motels. But this only took me another ten miles out of my way, which by this time was peanuts. Eventually I came upon a Motel 6, but this was the first motel I’ve refused to stay at on this trip. It looked like it was primarily a stopping off point for Mexican immigrants. The lobby was being rebuilt and was full of plaster dust and the sound of circular saws, and the only person standing in the lobby was a resident, whose first words to me were “so what’s wrong with your room, then?”

So, after looking round for a bit and not liking what I saw, I gave up on south Tucson completely and headed back north, to where I knew there was a tidy shopping area. Unfortunately the motels were correspondingly pricey, so I went south yet again and found the northernmost Motel 6, which had an actual receptionist (who was dying of hay fever) and rooms that mammals could live in.

The only snag now is that their internet access is down, so I’ll have to head north one more time to steal some wi-fi from one of the more expensive motels in order to send this. Oh, and there’s a railroad outside my window and the trains hoot.

So as well as Susan the Satnav, Serendipity also let me down today. Women, huh?

P.S. Sorry to anyone who’s waiting for emails from me – it’s too hot in this parking lot to deal with that now. Hopefully I’ll have better luck tomorrow.

Location: I have no idea – I don’t have internet access.

Today’s sensations: That sort of Zen feeling you get when you know that things can only get worse.

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Rising from the ashes

I can’t do big cities, especially American ones. I really don’t understand how. I never know whether I’m in a safe neighbourhood or one where someone is going to pull a gun on me if I get out of the car. I can never find anything – I just don’t recognise the cues. I’m not being ironic when I say that I’m sure Phoenix has hundreds of interesting places to go, it’s just that I couldn’t find any of them. The motel’s stack of tourist brochures had ones about Flagstaff, Sedona (who’d have guessed it?), the Grand Canyon, even Las Vegas, but I didn’t see any about Phoenix. If you live there, don’t write and tell me what I missed – I’m sure it’s all lovely – it’s just that it was a hundred degrees in the shade and I couldn’t be bothered to try very hard.
So I had a short, very sweaty hike in South Mountain Park, slobbed around outside Starbucks in the shade of some pretty yellow-blossomed trees, then spent a fair chunk of the day in my room, enjoying the simple pleasure of not having to go anywhere for a while. I caught up with my emails and will try to do a little writing this evening. Tomorrow is another day.
Phoenix Sky Harbor, seen from the South Mountains. Not many cities can claim whole mountain ranges in their midst!

Phoenix Sky Harbor, seen from South Mountain. Not many cities can claim whole sets of mountain ranges in their midst!

(Sara, if you’re reading this, stop! You said you wouldn’t)

Location: same as last night

Today’s sensations: For reasons I won’t go into, I feel a little welcome peace has descended.

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I set out this morning to drive west from Page, to see Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park, but somewhere between my parking space and the exit I changed my mind completely and headed south instead. I don’t know why. Maybe I’ve seen enough canyons. Maybe I felt I should start heading back towards reality. Maybe I needed some culture.

Anyway, I passed through Flagstaff for the third time and headed out towards Phoenix. On the way I saw a sign that said “Arcosanti”, which rang a bell in my mind, so I turned off the interstate and drove up a dirt track to see what I could see.

Arcosanti is an experimental vision for urban architecture, created by Paolo Soleri. They promised tours, so I stopped in. A nice guy called Jeff showed me round (just me) for an hour or so. I felt I had to double the normal donation of ten bucks to justify being the only one on the tour. Judging by what I saw, this probably made a significant contribution to the project’s income.



Soleri’s vision is for high-density urban development, as an antidote to the awful sprawl of most American cities, where you need a car just to get from one store to the next and you rarely see another actual human being. His big thing is “arcology” – a mix of architecture and ecology – and since I’m a biologist and a complex systems theorist, and I supervise a PhD student who is specifically interested in adapting biological principles to architecture, it sounded right up my street.

From the little I’ve read so far, Soleri’s ideas sound solid enough, but the practice leaves something to be desired. The grand vision is for a city with 5,000 inhabitants on the site. He started the project in 1956, the building process got underway in 1970 and now, almost forty years after that, there are a scattering of half-finished buildings and a transient population of roughly 80 people, mostly students.

Part of the problem is funding. Soleri funded his own career making bronze and ceramic bells, so the first building on the site was a foundry, and now people make bells to provide income for the project. Unfortunately, making bells seems to occupy the time they ought to be spending building structures. Amazingly, there are no significant research grants going into the project. The US government can stump up a few billion dollars for a particle accelerator but nothing whatsoever for figuring out how to rebuild their cities when urban decay meets up with an energy crisis, leading to ecological disaster. So the project continues in fits and starts, funded by profits from bell-making and a little income from workshop participants and the odd musical production.

An awful lot has happened in architecture, energy technology, town planning and even ecology since 1970, but the Arcosanti project seems stuck in the hippie past. It saddened me. In principle I’m in a position to just drop out, put my sleeping bag in one of their concrete cubicles and devote my life to helping them out. From what Jeff said it certainly sounds like they’d welcome me with open arms. They desperately need engineers – people who can actually make things – and they need people who know about modern ideas in ecology and self-organising systems. Plus people who can translate between the mutually incomprehensible languages of architecture, science and hippie. But I think I’d be hugely frustrated by the inertia of the place. Not much seems to happen per decade. And it reminded me of my own “career” – a big vision, creeping painfully slowly forward for lack of resources. It gave me an awful feeling of deja-vu. I’m glad I saw it though.

A social space in Arcosanti

A social space in Arcosanti

After that I descended 5,000 feet from the High Desert to the low Sonoran Desert, land of the seguaro cactus, and I’m now in Phoenix, Arizona. The temperature has risen as I descended, from the mid 70’s to 93F (34C), even though it is the evening. Phoenix has the distinction of being the hottest major American city, with temperatures well above 100F throughout the summer, sometimes reaching over 120F (49C). But unlike Louisiana it’s bone dry, so the heat is relatively bearable.

So, a couple of days ago I had half a mile of beach all to myself, and now I’m in the fifth largest city in the United States. Bit of a contrast! So far I’ve only seen one person whose waist measurement is smaller than their height, and he had needle holes all down his arm, so my first impressions aren’t great. And the city planners clearly didn’t listen to a single word Paolo Soleri said. But we’ll see what tomorrow brings. For all I know I’ll get in the car and suddenly decide to drive to New York…

33°36’11.07″N, 112° 7’6.31″W

Today’s sensations: Unusual impulsiveness, but I think that’s probably a good thing.

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Kicking my heels

I was wrong about the sandstorms – the inside of my tent was as yellow as the beach when I got back yesterday evening, and the sand continued to quantum tunnel its way through the canvas all night.


Glen Canyon dam, Lake Powell and the road bridge

So far I’ve had kind invitations to meet up with people in California, Nevada, Oklahoma, Maryland, Manitoba and, of course, Sedona. Much as I’d love to ride off into the sunset, I know I can’t keep on running away from my problems forever, so I’m afraid I’m not going to make it to most of those places. Soon I need to turn around and start heading back to Louisiana, and then, er, somewhere else.

Camping on the beach can do terrible things to a man

Camping on the beach can do terrible things to a man

But I’m so close to Bryce and Zion national parks that it would be silly to miss them, even though I’m getting canyon overload. Today, though, I’ve been hanging around in Page, Arizona, doing some shopping, washing the car, doing some laundry, etc. And tonight I’m in a motel again, with a shower and a bed that doesn’t spray sand all over you in the night. I’ve just washed half of Utah down the plughole and feel almost human again.

This morning I did some sunbathing and thinking on the shore of Lake Powell, near to the Glen Canyon dam. I threw a rock into the water for each of the people I love (it’s a tradition). The rim of Glen Canyon is just as precipitous as any that I’ve stepped out onto, and the bottom is something like 500 feet below. But this canyon is filled to the brim with Lake Powell, so the rocks will have taken a long, long time to sink, giving me a sweet opportunity to fill my thoughts with each of you in turn.

36°54’21.85″N, 111°28’45.23″W

Today’s sensations: Feeling very, very grimy. My heart sinking with the rocks. Feeling clean again.




Canyon's edge

Canyon's edge





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