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.

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.


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.

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





Texture Day

Well, I made it to Antelope Canyon. You have to go on a guided tour, so while I was waiting I popped over to Horseshoe Bend, on the Colorado River, and took this:

Horseshoe Bend

Horseshoe Bend

The colours are fantastic and the river reflected the clouds. But this is all I can show you for now, because I’m sitting in a parking lot, stealing someone’s wi-fi, and I haven’t had a chance to do much with the photos yet.

antelope5After that I went on the tour of Antelope Canyon, sitting next to Mike and Carol, who are looking to retire to… Guess where? Sedona. It’s clearly the centre of the world. The truck broke down in the middle of a sandy wash, but we got there eventually, and it’s really pretty. The canyon as a whole looks like the photo on the right. The textures and light are amazing. I’ll let the following photos describe what I mean.

Note that these are unretouched – straight out of my camera. The colours seem to come mostly from the way the sun or blue sky are reflected onto overhanging areas of rock – the same rocks outside look boring. It’s actually quite hard to photograph without a tripod and the absence of a tour group. I could of course have bought some postcards instead, but it’s better to have photos you took yourself, somehow. It’s like the importance of seeing things with your own eyes.

These are for Christopher and Ann:

 antelope1   antelope2

antelope3   antelope4

Tonight I’m staying at my beach place again, this time without a sandstorm. Tomorrow I may head out towards Zion. Or I may stay here another day. We’ll see.

Good luck to Lynne!

Location: same as yesterday

Today’s sensations: The feeling I’ll probably never see these things again. The itch of sand permanently embedded in my eyes.

Since I’m in Page getting provisions I thought I’d post today’s instalment even though the day isn’t over yet. I was too hard on Page, by the way. It’s a nice enough town, now that I can see it in daylight. The girls in the tourist office were very helpful for a start.

Oh wow! What a shame the circumstances aren’t happier, because I think I’ve found camper’s paradise. How can anything possibly beat this:


Tents from Walmart aren't designed for hurricanes

Tents from Walmart aren't designed for sandstorms

Not a bad camping spot, eh? And only $10 per night. As you can see, it’s right on the beach at Lake Powell, near to Lone Rock, just inside Utah. My next-door neighbours (about half a mile further up the beach) are tour guides in, guess where? Sedona, where I was a few days ago. They drive the pink jeeps I saw everywhere. Jessie and Jennifer are very nice, and lent me some long tent pegs in return for a ride to the nearest gas station for ice. It’s just as well they did, because just after I took the above photo a storm came through and all afternoon it has been blowing 30 knots, gusting 40. My tent just goes flat in a sandstorm like that, and if it wasn’t for the two tons of rocks I’ve put inside it, the whole thing would be in Colorado by now. I hope it calms down or I’ll be sleeping in a thin canvas sandwich, and will be dug up from the sand like a mummified pharoah in a thousand years’ time. But man, what a view!!! My own beach. The water hasn’t warmed up enough for swimming yet, but I’ve had a paddle (me and some ducks, in the middle of a sandstorm).

Anyway, must get back with my new possessions from the dollar store and see if my tent is still there. More about Lake Powell tomorrow.

37° 1’43.59″N, 111°33’4.93″W

Today’s sensations: Sand in my eyes, mixing with tears at the beauty of it all.

Grand Canyon

It’s smaller than I thought.

And anyway, it’s just a hole – who’d want to go and see something that’s not even there?

I’m lying, obviously. It’s HUGE. Indescribably huge. Incomprehensibly huge. The only part of my brain that comprehends it at all is my amygdala, which sends shock waves pulsing through me whenever I get within ten feet of the edge. It’s like a magnet – the closer I get, the harder it tries to push me away. When I sat on the edge to write some of this post, my laptop felt like it was about to leap off my knee and hurl itself into oblivion. I’ve never gripped anything so tightly. (I know someone who gets this feeling a lot, and now I have a better understanding of it, albeit too late.)

You're right, Tony, it's un-photographable, especially in 500 pixels

You're right, Tony, it's completely un-photographable, especially in 500 pixels

I started out with a walk along the rim, which was pretty amazing (see? It’s indescribable. I lack suitable adjectives and metaphors). The crowds got thinner (in every respect) the further I got from Mather Point. Only the very busiest parts have handrails, so most of the time you really have to watch your footing. I’d always assumed that the ground would get steadily more canyon-like the nearer you got to the canyon proper, but actually it’s a perfectly flat plain and then, whoa!!!


After strolling for a couple of miles along the rim I drove to a trail and hiked a little way down into the canyon. I stomped briskly down for about 45 minutes (and breathlessly back up again for 90) and that hardly even made a dent in it. But the views were vertiginous and stunning. Try as I might I couldn’t take it in, though. I kept telling myself that the fine green stippling that looked like spray paint was really trees, but nothing could give me a sense of scale. It was like looking at a huge painting, because there was no parallax – nothing changed its relative position as you moved.

Eventually, as one viewpoint gives way to another, you start to become used to it. It gains a familiarity and you become braver at stepping out onto jutting slabs of rock, a mile above the river and 600 feet above the first thing you would hit. The canyon starts to feel like a living thing, when really it’s the absence of a thing. Very odd. The human brain just isn’t designed to handle things this big. But it does help remind me that I’m just one puny little animal, sitting on a tiny planet, floating round a mediocre star, which sits in an inconspicuous part of the spiral arm of an utterly irrelevant galaxy, which in turn is just one of a hundred billion galaxies in the known universe. If that doesn’t give me a sense of proportion nothing will.

So that’s another wonder of the world ticked off. (And at least I know I’m not suicidal)

Those are people, next to the tree, top-left

Those are people, next to the tree, top-left

My headache started to subside this morning (yesterday now – I couldn’t get an internet connection last night) and I managed to book a room in a crummy motel, so I decided to press on from Flagstaff after all. I needed to take my mind off things and it’s best to keep moving. So now The Canyon is behind me and I’m located in a place called Page, Arizona, just below the border with Utah. From what I can see so far, it’s a bit like living in a salmon mousse. I don’t think I like the town much – the locals have been trampled on by so many tourists (some of them English – they’re the worst) that they don’t care any more. It reminds me of Calcutta, somehow. There can’t be many options for people out here. I overheard a conversation between youths this evening: one of them clearly had big aspirations, and insisted he wasn’t going to be a washer-up like the others; he wanted to be a waiter.

This is almost as far west as I’ll go. Lake Powell (which Stephen Fry adored) is just down the street and Antelope Canyon not far away. Getting rooms over the weekend is tricky, so I hope to camp. You can camp on the beach at Lake Powell, but I think you need a boat to do that and I forgot to pack one, so I’ll have to see what happens.

36°55’1.01″N, 111°27’27.35″W

Today’s sensations: Vertigo. The awful sadness of happy memories. Sunburn, because I forgot that clouds make little difference at 7,000 feet.