Sunday, August 19, 2012

Road Trip Part 5 - "You left me with the bloody Mexicans!"

May 2012

Waking up in Cortez, Colorado I was determined to make the most of my morning and get a much needed hair cut. Looking on Google maps I found one not too far from the RV park, so decided to walk there. Only to miss it completely and end up on the other side of town. Backtracking, I found it closed (typical) and so had to settle for a salon offering men’s haircuts. The girl inside seemed startled at this foreigner wandering in and asking for a haircut, but was incredibly nice and chatted away about the area and how she had never traveled and would love to do so. I was certainly surprised at the similarities Colorado had in many ways with North Carolina, and found out from this girl that Colorado was considered the South-West, with many comparisons such as a saturation of pickup trucks, crazy southern accents and a love of country music – all the stuff I love about the South!

Heading out of the RV park early afternoon, the plan was to head north, through the Rocky Mountains and up towards Salt Lake City. The going was mountainous to say the least, with twisty roads, steep inclines and sharp drops on the sides of the roads. When it became my turn to drive it took a lot of concentration, alongside having Michael riding shotgun to be vigilant too. I have to say I have a new found respect for the truck drivers in that area – trundling through at high speeds everyday! We passed through Silverton, a small town up in the mountains which Wahid wanted to see - which he did while we got gas – and then carried on through the mountains. The road we were taking was called ‘The Million Dollar Highway’  [LINK} so called because it cost that amount of money to build waaaay back in 1883 (so by today’s standards it would be a hell of a lot more!). However I preferred to call it by the name ‘Fuck-me-we’re-about-to-die Highway’, due to the fact it was an incredibly twisty and steep road with almost no crash barriers on the sides to prevent you falling off the side of the road to a mangled end at the bottom. Oh and the white lines denoting the edges of the road would simply disappear every so often as the cliff side encroached onto the roadside. It really was one of the scariest drives I’ve ever done, especially in the beast of the RV, but also one of the most beautiful at the same time. We had a quick stop at a beautiful wayside point along the route, changed drivers to allow my heart to leave my mouth and return to where it should have been and pulled into one of the best stops of the trip so far; the tiny mountain town of Ouray, Collorado.

Along the Million Dollar Highway

Having survived the frightfest that was the Million Dollar Highway (they have T-shirts saying “I survived The Million Dollar Highway” for Christ’s sake!) we pulled up on the main street of Ouray, got out and I was simply taken by the place. Set right up in the mountains, with snow capped mountain tops visible in every direction, Ouray was established in the 1800’s and many of the old classical American style buildings still existed there, which was amazing to see in the flesh (well, brick and wood I guess…). Us three drivers were instantly taken by the place, and along with Michael unanimously decided we were going to spend the night there. Following the usual sorting of lives out when we pulled up into the RV park, we wandered up the hill to a local brewery which had an amazing terrace on the roof looking out over the town. The place had a very similar feel to Toppo back in Chapel Hill, right down to a similar logo, menu font and layout, leading to questions as to whether the two were linked. Unlikely however considering the distance and difference of the two towns! The brewery did have some interesting and rather nice home beers, although their ‘pint’ was nowhere near a pint size (not just not poured to the top of a pint glass like most US bars, but actually in a smaller glass!), and had this bizarre practise of pouring a glass of wine for one of the girls and then taking the bottle away only to bring it back when the glass was empty. Bizarre mountain people! However, the view from terrace more than made up for this, with the sun shining and good music playing and everyone having a nice chill to begin the evening.

With stomachs rumbling well and truly after a few drinks a move was made towards dinner, the destination being a cool old school hotel/restaurant/bar type place down the hill. It was the sort of place you would expect to see in a western film, with a full on porch, stuffed game heads on the walls and American-Victorian decorations from the 1800’s (presumably when the building was built). The food was really good in there (having a buffalo burger myself), though it was spoilt somewhat by receiving a warm, unopened beer – err, excuse me?! – and there being dramas over the final bill, leading to a few arguments over whom owed what (it was to do with confusion over the tax and gratuity, which are added separately in the USA). However, it was resolved by me covering the extra and taking it out of the kitty, and from there it was back to the RV for a few more drinks. With a little persuasion I managed to convince Barney and Eshe to accompany me to one of the local bars, and we set off leaving the others behind to do what I really wanted to be doing most of the trip – drinking beers and chatting to locals.

Having a drink. Or two. Or three...
Heading into one of the saloon bars (so cool!) on the main street, we entered to find all of 5 people inside. And the barman. And the only cop in a 50 mile radius. Great start that was! The evening transgressed badly (or well depending on how you look at it!) and the three of us got merrier and merrier on various local beers, with the accompaniment of stories from the ‘Nam war in which the barman had served. Building bridges in various parts of the jungle for no real reason. Right… The evening descended further as we got chatting to some locals (by locals I mean Mexicans who work in the mines around Ouray. So not really locals at all I guess…), and with them not speaking much English we were ripe for Spanish abuse being thrown our way. Especially when Barney and I challenged them to a game of pool. And lost. Spectacularly. There was an old guy who looked about 90 with long white hair and a tiny stature who was infatuated with Eshe. I mean totally taken by her.: “You’re beautiful” he kept saying . Cue hilarity for Barney and I as we saw her get more and more uncomfortable with the whole situation….

In the confusion of me chatting to the Mexicans in broken English and even more broken Spanish, Barney and Eshe left the bar and me to my own devices. ‘No drama’ I thought to myself in a very merry mood by this point, just finish the beer and catch up with them. Except at this point the Mexicans were leaving at this point too and caught up in the moment I ended up at their house a short walk away from the bar. Even in my merry mood I knew this wasn’t a graet idea as as nice as the guys were, I didn’t understand what was going on (being all Spanish speakers) and a number of them disappeared into the kitchen to mix up bits and bobs. And the door had been locked behind me. Whilst I am sure they truly are lovely, respectable people I felt really uneasy and so said my goodbyes and left. Trying to frantically remember how the hell to get back to the RV park and being convinced I was being followed by the Big Bad Mexicans I managed to get back, and found Barney and Eshe very confused in the park, trying to get into the wrong, but completely identical Cruise America RV to ours. Woops! Directing them to our RV, we woke everyone up with our drunken shouting and carry-ons (including my loud announcements of the ‘Bloody Mexicans’) and eventually settled down to sleep. With me on the floor. Again.

I woke up the next morning (still drunk) to Wahid’s frantic driving. We were due to go white water rafting that day, and had to be at the place by 8. It was 7.45 – crap! To say we were a complete shambles when we arrived at the centre is an understatement. No one knew what was going on, and Barney and I still being drunk added to the drama. On the minibus from the centre to the starting place we both sat in the back downing water and scoffing Doritos in a desperate attempt to sober up. It didn’t really help as a massive hangover then set in. Ah well – yolo!

We all very obviously know what we are doing...

We were doing a 4 hour, approximately 9 mile rafting course down one of the rivers in Colorado (I never actually found out which one) with a company operating out of Ridgway, CO. The guides we had were complete mentalists and great fun to be around, mucking around and winding us up about being so hung-over. There being 8 of us (Kim not wanting to join) there were two rafts of 4 people going down the river, which was good fun but not as technical as I have done previously in Scotland, although he white water parts were a lot more sustained. Unlike Scotland where there was faaar too much paddling and not much actual white water. I fell in, as I didn’t hold on hard enough as we crashed into a rock sideways. The freezing snowmelt water certainly woke me up! The rafting was over far too soon, and I thoroughly enjoyed it – it being what the trip was meant to be all about to me. And it was topped off by a phenomenal Tai lunch in a restaurant next to the rafting centre. And I mean amazing – if you’re ever in Ridgway I would definitely recommend going there! It was also a good chance to have a little poke around the town, which is tiny. Tiny in that none of the roads except the main highway passing through are paved. Very different to anything we had come across previously in the trip.

After lunch we hit the road heading towards another small mountain town of Telluride. Barney, proclaiming to still be drunk, wasn’t able to drive and Wahid had had a beer at lunch so said he couldn’t drive so it was down to me. Which I wasn’t happy about at all; being incredibly tired from the night before. But yet again in my usual show of taking one for the team without much complaint I took the wheel. Looking back on it it was probably one of the most stupid things I had done in a long while. The route was mountainous, and it took every effort of concentration to prevent myself from dropping off at the wheel. Luckily it was a mere 40 miles to Telluride, and once again pulling up into the town it was down to everyone else except the group to sort out where we were staying. The game of cards was far too important. So muggings had to trot to the visitor centre in an effort to find an RV park, and was rather glad I did as the guy behind the desk was a fellow Tar Heel, recognising my UNC top. How weird is that?! After a brief chat and the required Duke-bashing he directed me to the other side of town to where an RV park was. Driving through the mountain town of Telluride I was struck by its incredible beauty. By far one of my favourite places. Picturesque old school American style buildings set against the backdrop of snow capped mountains of the Rockies. I also had to negotiate my first US roundabout in the town, which was a little weird going the other way round to home. And in a 30ft RV it was a little tricky manoeuvring around the tiny thing! Being the last day of high school that day there was a party atmosphere in the town, which I was keen to get involved with, and after $3 showers (having not had one since white water rafting) – an absolute rip off as the hot water only lasted 3 minutes! – and an incredible BBQ I tried to persuade the others to come out with me. To no effect. Looking back on it im not surprised at all but at the time I was shocked and couldn’t understand peoples negative attitudes to going and doing things like that. Especially after the fun some of us had had the night before. Just couldn’t understand it…

Wandering down Telluride Main Street

Telluride River
The next morning (after a very costly night in the RV park - $23 plus $3 showers - without hook-ups), Michael, Eshe and I left everyone on Facebook (again) and went for a walk down the main street. Eventually the others joined us, and we wondered around Telluride, with a few discoveries including a very nice Greek restaurant/trailer-thing and this cool concept known as a ‘free box’. This is basically a shelving unit on the side of the road where people dump unwanted things for others to come and reuse. Being students we got right in there, finding hoodies, a football, and a few other items of clothing. From there it was back to the RV and get on the road to our next destination – Salt Lake City.

RV Antics
I really loved the mountains, with the stunning scenery and picturesque little towns. It was also great that we actually got out for a morning and went white water rafting, as well as drinking and having a good laugh. Having said that, I still get cold sweats thinking back to the mountain roads and sheer drops we had to drive along! I am also getting a used to RV life a lot more now, and everyone is beginning to adapt a lot better to the confined space and the need to keep everything condensed. Although the back bedroom constantly looks like a bomb site, and the ‘cupboard of doom’ as I call it is always full with peoples stuff left out whilst travelling. Having said that, whilst I am enjoying the trip and RV life in general, some people still aren’t pulling their weight fairly, and its now interesting to see some of the lads getting fed up with it. One argument has already been had between two members about the girls not fairly contributing to jobs and taking turns to sleep on the floor, yet firmly advocate feminism. Sorry love, if you’re a ‘feminist’ you should bloody well act equally as well as expect to be treated equally. On a more positive and funny side, most evenings are now devoted to getting drunk and arguing (sorry debating) the big questions in life, such as nationalism, Scottish independence and politics. Rather funny to take a back seat in and see people try and make arguments only to lose track of what they were saying half way through! 

(map from Google Maps)
(additional photos from Amy, Eshe and Kimberly)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Road Trip Part 4 - The Desert

May 2012

Leaving Vegas we headed east towards the Grand Canyon. With Wahid driving (Barney and I were feeling a bit too delicate) it was a hot and sticky drive, going via the Hoover Dam. As we approached the Hoover Dam we were stopped at a security checkpoint (I’m assuming for terrorists) and an incredibly hot and sweaty state trooper entered the RV, looked in the bathroom, refused to have a photo taken and made very small talk before leaving. Not exactly a great defence against a terror threat there… The heat out in the desert really hit us hard, and no matter what level the air-conditioning was on in the RV, it did little to provide relief for us. 

The Hoover Dam is an impressive sight – this huge man made structure out in the middle of the desert. I was however really surprised at how touristy the place was though – people swarming all over the place and tours being offered at rather extortionate prices. We stopped off slightly away from the dam for some pictures, and then it was back into the sweat box to continue on our way. I tried to have a nap in the back of the RV – not particularly easy on the bumpy, twisty highways, of the Nevada desert. Coupled with the plastic mattress becoming slippy from my sweat it meant that more often than not I found myself flying off the sides of the bed – bit alarming to say the least!!

Pissing off security

Back of the dam

The reservoir. Surprisingly low of water as well...

Being typical tourists!

The journey was a long one, requiring a few gas stops along the way. We came across one gas station which was unique to say the least. Calling itself “The Last Stop”, we weren’t sure what it meant by that and a little worried it was a literal name before the wilderness of the proper desert we stopped for gas to be safe (sods law we later found a Texaco garage less than ½ a mile down the road with much cheaper gas…). I’m glad we stopped there though as it really was an interesting place. Every square inch of outside wall were covered in murals and paintings depicting all elements of the US desert – from Area 51 (not that far from where we were) to classic Wild West images and classic American cars. And it was in the middle of nowhere. Amazing… Ive mentioned it before, but really does astound me at how spread out the USA is, and how un-developed of much of it is too. We would go for hours and hours through the desert without seeing anything and then a small habitation of a few buildings would fast appear and then we would be back to seeing literally nothing but wilderness for miles again. It fascinates me how people live in areas like that, and really bugged be how these places were dismissed by some in the RV as “shit” having no knowledge about them or even taken the time to have a polite look. I guess my reaction to people’s attitudes with a semi-conscious surprise and almost pity at their apparent closed-mindedness (in my opinion at least) at simply writing places off without more than a brief glance through the window.

The 'Last Stop'

 That night we stayed at a very random and isolated RV park off the highway, right in the desert complete with blowing sand and tumble weed (no, seriously!). We evening was one of the most content evening of the trip so far – sat on the hood of the RV with beer in hand and Antonia’s awesome music playing through the windows. Michael and I got chatting to a girl in the RV spot next to ours who lived their permanently with her boyfriend. It really shocked me at how real it actually is in the USA to actually live in an RV, and driving the routes we are it is surprisingly common for rural people to live in RV’s more than actual buildings. I’m not sure if it’s a commentary on the poverty that can be witnessed in the USA, or simply a life choice, but it was incredibly interesting to hear about something I’ve never come across in the UK. Except for gypsies. Which aren’t particularly popular…

The right way to travel!
Candid RV shot

The next morning was again a slow one – Facebook playing a large part in this yet again and yet again me getting frustrated at certain people’s complete lack of ability to do anything for the group. When we eventually got going I drove to the Grand Canyon itself, and with a $25 for a seven day pass, it was one of the cheapest national parks I’ve had been in all year. The actual park itself is huge, with its own village and everything – very geared towards tourists but nowhere near as bad as I feared. After getting lost a few times (due to SatNav issues and people putting in their 5 cents worth from the back), leading to numerous U-turns (and a wrong turn down a road prohibited to RV’s longer than 25ft), and me getting incredibly pissed off people moaning about the to-ing and fro-ing,  whilst trying to drive the RV, be aware of other traffic and find a parking spot that we could actually fit in. It’s hard enough to drive a 30ft beast on the other side of the road without everyone getting hysterical at missing a parking spot or making another U-turn. Something I really don’t think the other non-drivers don’t realise and totally take for granted – I guarantee they would have been thinking differently if they were trying to do what the drivers have to do. On top of taking turns to sleep on the floor (which has to be done with the limited bed space in the RV), which isn’t a great night’s sleep whatsoever (all the lads have taken their turns, some of whom three times while certain girls have yet to do so. Or even offer), as well as contributing to other aspects of RV life such as emptying sewage (not a particularly pleasant experience I will say) whilst others just sit there – very few of the group actually seem to actually think of the group dynamic and not simply about themselves and ‘their’ holiday. Anyways, after parking up the RV I took a few minutes to myself to calm down, climbing down a short way down the canyon sides to an isolated overhang and watching the sunset. Which was pretty impressive. We stayed there for the night, overlooking the canyon, and the next morning I really pushed for what I wanted to do for a long time – hike the Grand Canyon.

Posing. Like professional posers

The Grand Canyon in the sunset. Simply stunning.
The ladies of the Canyon
Feeling in awe

Unfortunately this wasn’t as simple as I was hoping. My idea was to walk through the Canyon to the other side – no way was that happening: far too far a distance. The next best idea was to walk to the river and back again. Again, not possible as it would take 2 days. So I had to settle for the Rim Trail walk, which is an incredibly touristy route along the edge of the Canyon. Ah well, at least it was something I guess. I wanted to get going around 10:30am-giving everyone an hour and a half warning. Typically people were still not ready to go by then… However eventually we got going and almost instantly there were mutterings about the route I had chosen (which incidentally was a short cut to the main trail). I was so fed up at this point that I just kept pushing not wanting to waste any more time. Wahid, Barney and Michael saw a bus and ran for it. Whatever – I’d have rather they said they weren’t interested in walking than just buggering off but its they day to do what they want as much as mine. After some deliberation of the route and re-thinking of the feasibility of getting part way down to the river, as well as stocking up on some food we hit the Rim Trail. Only a mere 2.5 hours after I had wanted to.

Hiking the Grand Canyon

Despite the Rim Trail being very touristy – all nicely paved and sign posted – there weren’t as many people on it as I expected. It was a great walk and nice to have a slightly smaller group of us who actually wanted to walk. We only ended up achieving roughly 5 of the planned 8 miles – taking our time and occasionally scrambling down the sides of the Canyon. Oh and an amazing 1.5 hour lunch break right on the edge of a lip in the side of the Canyon wall with our feet hanging off the edge. There is one word for the Grand Canyon. No actually a few: stunning, majestic and bloody huge! It was just amazing how every corner we went around the trail offered new perspectives onto the Canyon below. I really wasn’t prepared for how huge the canyon was – in a lot of places you couldn’t even see the Colorado river running through the bottom of it, let alone the hikers on the bottom paths. It was simply breathtakingly beautiful.

Me. On a rock.

Running out of time we got the bus back along the trail – something I didn’t really want to do but group dynamics and compromise came into play (not that im complaining here I hasten to add!) – Via hermit’s Rest at the end of the ‘touristy’ part of the Southern Rim. Returning to where we had left the RV, the blow of finding it gone hit us hard – just what we needed after a long day! However it transpired that the others had gone to get gas in the hope of returning before we did, and so feeling grateful we didn’t have to worry about that for a while now we hit the road towards Monument Valley.
Cameron 'Town'
On the Utah border

We spent the night in a tiny town (by tiny I mean all of a post office, gas station, small hotel and the pride of the place – a bridge!), called Cameron which was an old trading post with a sizable Native American population. To be honest, in reality it was a huuuge tourist trap with a huge ‘souvenir’ shop in which coach-full’s of people rocked up in all through the next morning. After the usual morning ritual palaver (which I admit I did contribute to as I had to Skype home to wish a happy birthday), we hit the desert highway again on our route towards monument valley. On route we passed through the Navajo Nation, which is almost like its own separate state, with a population of almost entirely Native Americans with its own police force and native language set out in the desert. I was really keen to get out and have a poke around, but yet again I was at odds with the group with the question of “but what is there to look at?” being posed from the card players. So I had to settle on looking out of the window as we rushed through it, realising I was very much at odds with others in the group in what I wanted to get out of the trip. We stopped on the Arizona-Utah border and I was determined to get out and have a look round, and I was glad I did so as I found a tiny little cafĂ© selling ‘traditional’ Native American food, including 'Fry-Bread' which is exactly as it sounds – fried bread covered in sugar and honey. Absolutely delicious! 

Passing through Monument Valley I was struck at the pure bizarre-ness of it. The desert is somewhere I have never been before, and coupled with these bizarre, naturally formed structures seemingly just plonked into place I was fascinated with the place. However, this again was at odds with some people in the group, including a certain person who was adamant they wanted to go there, but couldn’t actually be bothered to look up from the card game at hand beyond stating that the place “looked shit”. I honestly couldn’t believe it. Whilst I agree the desert may not be the most interesting or comfortable place to be in for some, to disregard it in such a manner when you haven’t even bothered to get out the RV and have a look around just shocked me. As I have said before, I loved the desert and its complete difference to anywhere I have been previously. I guess in that respects I really am quite at odds with the majority of the group.

Monument Valley

Anyways, as Monument Valley was so “shit”, we passed through quickly and crossed the state line into Colorado, stopping in the city of Cortez. Via another Walmart stop and the realisation that Colorado alcohol laws were as ridiculous as North Carolina’s (a grocery store cannot sell liquor, nor can it sell wine and beer in the same place. I.e. only one or the other can be sold in a Walmart store. Everything else has to be purchased in an independently run liquor store), meaning a further stop had to be made at a costlier liquor store. Great… It was then a rock up job to an RV park on the main street through the place, which thankfully had much needed laundry facilities, get a BBQ going and attract complaints at the level of our merriment. Oops!

(map from Google Maps) 
(additional photos from Amy, Eshe and Kimberly)