Phoenix is on our route south and the closer we get to it, the more lanes there are and the more I have to check that I’m in the right one. It should be easy, but occasionally my lane suddenly becomes an exit lane and I have to move over. I indicate first, of course, which probably marks me down as some kind of weirdo. No one observes the speed limit, either, and there are one or two truly insane lane-jumpers doing 90 or so. Me? I get regular alerts telling me what the speed limit is and when I break it.
We pass countless billboards for lawyers, private hospitals, cars and sports teams. One poster reads ‘WORK HARD. SMOKE HARD’. I don’t manage to see who it’s for. It’s been troubling me ever since.
We pull into Tucson’s Arizona Inn hotel around mid-afternoon. There’s none of your wooden cabins here. It’s a bit glam, as evidenced by the names of the people who’ve stayed here: Dali, Rockefeller, Clark Gable, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and, er, Lord Halifax.
The hotel is just what we need right now. It has a pool, a sauna, a gym and games room, a library, tennis courts, table tennis and a croquet lawn. The temperature’s in the mid-30s so all we ever use is the pool. But it’s nice to know the others are there just in case.
In fact, the weather is a bit strange right now. Although the days are hot and the skies cloudless, at nighttime there are flashes of lightning all around us. There’s never any rain or claps of thunder, but the lightning keeps up for as long as we do. The locals don’t react to the display in any way whatsoever, so we assume it’s standard for these parts. A weather forecast doesn’t mention anything about the lightning either, but I notice there’s a place due south of us called ‘Nogales’. Lucky them.
I spend our two days here reading and enjoying the sunshine, with occasional dips to cool off. A bemused pool attendant from Mexico is surprised I don’t want to sit in the shade. I explain about England and rain and clouds etc, and how this is a treat for us. “I don’t mind the rain,” she says “but I don’t like the snow.”
Hang on. We’re only about an hour from the Mexican border. “Do you get snow here, then?” I ask.
“Snow? At night? No.”
I think about this answer. “Or ever?”
“No,” she says.
Right. That’s that cleared up.
Carol’s more of a shade fan and will only emerge into the sunlight to swim, which she does effortlessly and gracefully.
I pick up a New York Times and read just about all of it. The death of Hilary Mantel takes up the whole of the back page and there’s a lengthy obituary inside. I wonder what the Daily Mail’s coverage is like. A hostile paragraph or two on page 13, no doubt.
The NYT is easily four feet tall.
We eat at the hotel one night and brave the streets to head to a local pizza joint on the other. I say ‘brave’ as no sooner are we outside the hotel’s grounds than we have a narrow escape from what might still be called a panhandler. It’s probably not too dangerous out here but I wouldn’t want to do it at night. Hang on, it is night.
Steps over two days: 23,754. I’m surprised. Must have been those trips to the bar…
Saturday 24 September
We drive back to Phoenix and fly home on what feels like a brand-new Airbus A350. Thanks to Avios, we’re in BA Business again. It’s such a treat. Everything’s digitally controlled, you have your own little door and honestly, the food is better than almost anything we’ve had over the last three weeks. On the outbound trip I’d watched Ambulance and thought it quite possibly the worst film I’d ever seen. That was until I selected Moonfail for the return.
So, in summary:
Walked: 170 miles (274km) Drove: 2,125 miles (3,420km) Flew: Let’s not go there
The temperature creeps up and the landscape changes as we make the 200-mile journey south through Navajo country to Sedona. The towering red rocks of Monument Valley give way to flat, dry scrub, then dirty grey mounds suggestive of some earlier mining activity, and finally the rolling green hillsides and steep red canyons of Coconino National Forest.
Along the way, I suffer twinges of anxiety about driving a little faster than the limit of 65mph, a feeling that quickly subsides whenever I am overtaken by a thundering 18-wheel Mack truck.
Our home for the next three nights is a B&B in a southern suburb of Sedona called Oak Creek. We arrive a few hours ahead of check-in so spend the time relaxing by the pool. Before long, some movement catches my eye and I glance up to see an actual hummingbird at the bird feeder. Its wings beat faster than Dave Grohl’s wrists to hold the bird motionless while it drinks. I feel blessed to have witnessed such a rare species, until the B&B’s owner casually tells me they’re a dime a dozen in this area. “They’re all over the place,” he says. “About six different types. Look, there’s another one. You should have been here last month for the annual hummingbird festival.” Bloody hummingbirds.
In the evening we eat at a nearby ‘couture burger lounge‘ where we both order what the menu calls ‘Nothing Burgers’.
“Thanks for nothing!” I say when the food arrives. I’m clearly the first person ever to crack this joke, and the waitress, considerate of other diners, disappears into the kitchen and out of sight before obviously cracking up with laughter.
We round the evening off with a quick beer at a sports bar called PJs.
Steps: A desultory 9,513
Tuesday 20 September
If Waitrose were to open a store in the US, Sedona would be the perfect place. It’s ordered, clean and expensive. It’s also home to a surprisingly large contingent of wealthy British ex-pats – large enough for the city to have an annual Britain day. I liked the place, despite not being ordered, clean or wealthy myself. It wasn’t any particular Britishness that appealed, just it’s slight air of quirkiness.
With its crystal shops, ‘aura-reading stations’ and vortexes, Sedona feels like it’s been uprooted from California and dumped here in Arizona.
Vortexes? These are points around Sedona’s various cliffs that the locals imbue with new-age significance. I think the idea is you sit cross-legged on the vortex to gain some sort of spiritual renewal. Being America, large amounts of money probably have to change hands, too. In any case, we didn’t need any vortexes (vortices, surely?) or organic new-age tarot-scented flapdoodle to feel, if not spiritual, then at least uplifted. But it’s Sedona’s natural beauty that does that – its red-faced mesas, sage-scented trails and wind-sculpted pinnacles.
But first, we get a bit lost. We’re looking for a particular trailhead but somehow end up in the wrong car park. As we attempt to locate our whereabouts, a guy sidles towards us. He looks like he’s seen better days: a bit strung out, fresh wounds on his arms, unkempt hair. “You guys need help?”
We nervously tell him where we want to get to and he gives us directions – turns out it’s just a mile or so up the road. “But you want to take care where you’re going,” he adds. “There have been reported sightings of Dick Cheney.” Never judge a book etc.
It’s a gorgeous walk. The trail takes us along an orange-dust pathway through cottonwood and ponderosa pines. We glimpse distant deer, woodpeckers, an impossibly small frog, and the pawprint of what might have been a peccary. Gregory Peccary, perhaps.
In the evening we eat ribs at the counter of a place called Colt Grill in Oak Creek. The lady next to us hears our accents, which sparks a conversation. Now one of the things I wanted to do in the US was chat with a few ordinary Americans. This lady proves to be anything but. It starts innocently enough, but things take a turn for the weird when turns the subject to politics. She asks about Boris Johnson and I say that the feeling in the UK was that he thought he could get away with lies, deceit and hypocrisy. “Remind you of anyone?” I ask. Bad move.
She slams down her tequila. “I don’t know if it’s only the liberals from your country who travel,” she says, “but every Brit I meet says that. Let me tell you, Trump was the greatest thing to ever happen to America.*”
That isn’t the weird bit. Plenty of Americans think highly of Trump. It’s her subsequent pronouncements that make us wonder whether she’s been sitting on a vortex too long.
The war in Ukraine is a put-up job, designed to distract our attention from the real issue, which is Nazi child sex trafficking
The Queen has in fact been dead since March 2021. It was covered up by the deep state
The moon landings were faked
Kennedy was killed by the government. Deep state again
‘Your David Icke is right’
9-11 was an inside job
There are reptilian shape-shifters among us. They’re controlled by the deep state
These are not conspiracy theories; they’ve all been proven true
My goodness, those deep-state boys keep themselves busy. What do you do when confronted with that level of paranoia? Our solution was to quickly finish our meals, throw some money down and run away.
Back in the safety of the B&B, I check out the books on display in its small library. There’s a surprising number of works by Anne Coulter and other voices of the rabid right. Note to self: do not initiate any political conversations with the owners.
Perhaps Sedona isn’t that great after all.
*I think she might be right about people who travel being liberals. Not all, obviously. But I reckon those who wish to experience foreign cultures have a certain curiosity and open-mindedness about them, which I’d hazard is more a characteristic of them than it is of conservatives. If more people in the UK had ever set foot in anywhere more alien than Benidorm, Brexit would never have happened.
Wednesday 21st September
The weather has been getting progressively worse for the past couple of days and today it’s chucking it down. Indoor attractions beckon. We head to a town called Clarkdale and check out its Copper Museum. Here we see lifelike recreations of Columbo, Crockett & Tubbs and Dixon of Dock Green. Nah! It’s a museum of proper copper, housed in the town’s old high school.
Copper was HUGE in the area back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the man who basically controlled the show was one William A Clark. He’s another guy who’d be quickly locked up these days (one would hope), as he was in the habit of bribing people to get what he wanted. “I never bought a man who wasn’t for sale,” he said in his defence.
There’s a surprising amount of history wrapped up in copper and the museum kept us informed, regaled and more importantly dry, for a good couple of hours. If ever you’re in the area, but only IF you’re in the area, I definitely recommend a visit.
Oh, the other odd thing about Sedona – odd for an American city, anyway – is its roundabouts. Where everywhere else you get intersections with traffic lights, Sedona has bravely adopted these staple features of European roads. However, many Americans remain deeply unsure about what they call ‘traffic circles’. They’ll wait for the entire roundabout to clear before entering, stop halfway around to let others enter, and resolutely refuse to indicate. Even if they’re not driving a BMW…
It’s Newcastle vs Bournemouth in an early kick-off, which for us means 8.00 am. The match has finished (1-1) by the time we have our strange breakfast of a small croissant with great slabs of processed ham and cheese, washed down with a coffee-coloured hot drink.
It’s good that most of the places we stay in provide a breakfast of some sort or another. But one of the things I really wanted to do here is have breakfast in a proper roadside diner. We’d sit in a red booth by the window, eat bacon with eggs over easy and drink unlimited coffee while clocking the rest of the diners.
Look, there’s Jack Reacher, quickly despatching three thugs but only after telling them precisely how he was going to do it. Next booth along, Travis Bickle is sitting with, yet clearly apart from, his taxi-driving colleagues. Further down, someone who looks a lot like Jack Nicholson is kicking off because the waitress won’t give him a side order of toast. And crikey, what’s this, some English punk and his chick Honey Bunny are holding up the entire bloody diner!
It wasn’t to be. And nor did I find somewhere to buy a John Deere baseball hat, another item on my US bucket list. I’ve actually driven a John Deere tractor out in Israel, so I’d have been safe from accusations of (agri)cultural appropriation.
Anyway. Monument Valley. Wait, before that, the road leading into Monument Valley. It would be a number-one photo opp even if it hadn’t been made famous by Forrest Gump. But the film has placed it firmly on the tourist circuit, and there’s a bit of a scramble to get in front of other snappers so that they don’t appear in your shot – with the result that we all gradually move further and further along the road.
I’ve never seen the movie, but there must be a scene in which Forrest Gump runs along the road toward the camera, as many people are recreating that for selfies and videos.
The views from Monument Valley’s View Hotel are good, hence the name, but they’re even better from the cabins built a few years later. So that’s where we are, oohing and aahing as the sun rises and sets over this pair of towering rocks we learn are called the Mittens.
I tried a timelapse of the sunset but one of the things about my iPhone is that it compensates for poor lighting conditions. So as the sun sets, the camera ups the brightness. I’ll spare you the results.
We don facemasks and head to the main hotel for dinner. The whole area is run by the Navajo, and I think Covid must have taken a toll in their community because they are VERY strict on facemasks. We’re happy to comply. They don’t serve alcohol, either. Fair enough. Your land, your rules. But, boy, the meals are regrettable.
We complete the eating challenge, pay our £60(!) and watch the stars before turning in.
Sunday 18 September
Up early for a tour around the Valley. Our guide is Larry, a Navajo Indian whose real name certainly isn’t Larry. On our truck are a lively couple from Wales, a pair of Americans from Wisconsin and two silent ones from fuck knows.
Larry makes frequent photo stops and tells us the monuments’ names and their places in Indian folklore. He tells us how the Navajo language was deployed as an unbreakable code during World War II. We learn about Harry Goulding, the farmer who effectively ‘discovered’ Monument Valley (for whitey) in the early 1920s and who suggested to the Hollywood director John Ford that it might be a good filming location. ‘Stagecoach’ was the first, but there have since been dozens of movies, TV episodes and commercials set there.
In the afternoon I go out for a short hike to Merrick Butte. I’m in my element. It’s hot, there’s no one about and the views are stupendous. I listen to a bit of Lambchop and have a sudden urge to share the moment. Apologies for portrait mode and – horror of horrors – using Fahrenheit.
Our cabin is equipped with a microwave and a fridge, so we plan to drive 12 miles to the nearest food store. Before we set off, though, we take a moment to check that the cabin has knives and forks etc.
It does not. No spoons, either. Or plates. We reluctantly trudge back to the main hotel for lord knows what…
It’s a busy seven-lane highway that takes us out of Salt Lake City, gradually reducing in width as it snakes its way south. I’m now behind the wheel, simultaneously watching my speed, looking out for crazy lane-jumpers and glancing at the many roadside billboards.
Most seem to be ads for lawyers. They almost always feature two or three smiling faces with a headline saying how much friendlier they are than all the other lawyers. One stands out, though. It’s for a firm of matrimonial lawyers.
And this one was for a supermarket chain. It wasn’t Walmart but you get the idea.
I didn’t get much of a chance to listen to the radio while we were stateside, which was a shame, but I hear one ad with a nice end line. It’s for the Swiffer, a kind of hoover designed to pick up pet hairs. The female voiceover talks about the pain of clearing up hair shed by cats and dogs, reels off the product benefits then delivers the payoff: ‘Swiffer. Because shed happens.’
The weather worsens during our 250-mile drive south. The sky is black and the rain comes down in sheets by the time we arrive at the, er, Sunflower Inn. We dry off, borrow some brollies and explore Moab, our base for the next two days. It doesn’t take long. Moab is a small town without a lot going for it. But it’s perfectly placed for tourists who want to visit the national parks of Arches and Canyonlands, and it’s the first of these we visit the next day.
The next day
You need to book in advance to enter Arches National Park. One hapless RV driver hasn’t, and after queueing for an hour has to promptly turn around and head back to Moab. But that isn’t the worst fate to befall some park-goers. Yesterday’s heavy and prolonged rain had gradually descended from the park’s higher elevations to strand many motorists on the wrong side of a torrent of sand-red water. They’d be there for a number of hours.
We’re in the park for six hours and could easily stay longer. It’s just so breathtakingly impressive, and although we cover a lot of ground we only get to see a handful of the park’s 2,000+ natural sandstone arches.
Friday 16 September
If Arches National Park is full of arches, what do you think we’ll find in Canyonlands National Park? Got it in one. The vistas are bigger and wider here – it’s more akin to Grand Canyon in scale – and consequently even more difficult to capture with photographs. But we have a go. You have to, don’t you?
Salt Lake City has never featured on my list of must-visit places in the USA, but as it’s on our route south we’d made the decision to have a nose around.
We check into the Inn On The Hill, a grand ‘Renaissance Revival’ style former private house built in1906. The daughter of the owner shows us around. I remark that an old picture of the building ‘has a bit of a Psycho vibe’ and, luckily for me, she laughs.
If Salt Lake City is famous for anything it’s for being the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or Mormons to you and me. We’re keen to learn a little more about the religion so have booked a tour in their conference centre in Temple Square, with Sister Sandy ‘don’t call us Mormons’ Olsen showing us around.
Without getting into too much detail, we established that their beliefs are in fact a bit barmy. It is told that in 1820 somewhere in upstate New York, God spoke to a young bloke called Joseph Smith. An angel led him up a hill and said ‘dig there’. So Smith did so and, behold, up came a couple of gold plates with writing on them. Smith managed to translate these and they became the Book of Mormon. The book reveals how a bunch of Israelis came to America 600 years before Jesus was born. Not only that, but Jesus himself also once came to the land of the free. This was after his resurrection. There’s as much evidence for any of this as there is that those feet walked upon England’s mountains green, but still.
Followers of the church maintain that Jesus will once more return to Earth. His first stop will be Jerusalem and from there he’ll head to Missouri. Which must annoy the hell out of the Mormons of Salt Lake City, Utah, considering how much money they’ve poured into the place. Honestly, the signs of their huge wealth are everywhere.
To give you an example, the building below, the 85,000-tonne Salt Lake Temple, is currently having earthquake-proofing dampeners placed underneath its foundations. I don’t suppose they’ll see much change out of half a billion for that.
The temple being very much off-limits to visitors for this reason, Sister Sandy takes us on a quick tour of their magnificent conference centre instead. The build quality here is outstanding. Everything is solid, gleaming and expensive. The auditorium is stunning. It can seat 21,200 devotees, with everyone getting an uninterrupted view of whatever they get up to on the stage. At each room and hall we visit, we are greeted by a pair of smiling young female Mormons in flowy dresses who tell us of the places they’ve been sent to try and convert the locals. Everyone smiles, everyone not in a position of power is female, and almost everyone is white.
We say goodbye to smiling Sister Sandy and head over the road to the Tabernacle, a velodrome lookalike constructed by early Mormons as somewhere to do their praying when they weren’t building the temple next door. It’s been improved ever since and today is an acoustically perfect concert hall. We sit and listen to a lunchtime recital performed on the hall’s mighty and majestic, and slightly sinister-looking pipe organ.
Our last Mormon attraction is the house lived in by Brigham Young, who took over when Joseph Smith died. Our guide there, a portly man wearing the regulation Mormon uniform, takes a small group of us from room to room while painting a very positive light of a man who’d be in bloody jail if he was around today.
“Brigham Young understandably recoiled at the idea of taking a second wife,” he explains.
Quite right too, I think.
“But back then it was a way of rescuing a woman from poverty.”
Oh, I suppose in that case I can see some justificat…
“So he ended up marrying 57.”
I must admit failing to stifle a laugh at this, earning a stern look from the guide. But for heaven’s sake, 57? What was he trying to do, match Heinz? He was a racist, too, somewhat unsurprisingly.
In the afternoon we drive to SLC’s Museum of Natural History. It’s home to the biggest collection of dinosaur bones and intact skeletons I’ve ever seen, which stands to reason given its location in Utah, the self-proclaimed dinosaur capital of the world. Some of the exhibits are more than 200 million years old.
Just what hardcore adherents of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, who hold that the Earth was created about 7,000 years ago, think of that is anyone’s guess. Perhaps they blame those pesky Early-Day Saints.
In the evening we eat at a restaurant called Gracies and are served by a waitress whose name badge announces she’s called Gracie. “Are you all called Gracie here, then? Is that the schtick?” She looks at me strangely. “No. Gracie’s my name. It’s a coincidence.”
On the way home we see a bus headed to Poplar Grove – until recently our address in New Malden. Another coincidence. Then I get a message from Simon, our ex-neighbour from back then, telling me he now lives in Salt Lake City, and have we got time for a beer? Unfortunately not, I reply. “But – long shot – you don’t happen to live in Poplar Grove, do you?” Ha! No, he doesn’t. That would have been too much.
I must admit, I’d never heard of Grand Teton until my wife included it in our itinerary. Consequently, I wouldn’t have known that its name is French for ‘big breasts’. You live and learn.
Grand Teton is a National Park in northwestern Wyoming. It’s about 310,000 acres, making it a little bigger than Bedfordshire. That helps you a lot, doesn’t it? Our leisurely drive through the park involves stops at various photogenic places: Jackson Point, Flagg Ranch, Oxbow Bend and the aptly named Signal Point…
…although it turns out the name isn’t anything to do with the strength of the 5G. It was where people searching for a lost hunter lit a fire to signal to others they’d found his drowned body. This was in 1891 when they didn’t even have 1G. Signal Point sits atop a 2,355m mountain. Luckily for us, you can drive virtually to the summit.
We check into our room at Colter Bay Village. It’s another wooden cabin but luxurious compared to the glorified outhouse at Old Faithful. It has power points, adequate pillows, lots more space and, nice touch this, helpful signs telling us what to do in event of the room being invaded by bats. There’s no mention of the correct procedure in case a bear should wander in.
Meeting a bear on our walks is unlikely but still a possibility, so I carry a can of bear spray in a little shoulder pouch. You’re also supposed to sing or talk loudly while you’re out walking. Our singing voices would indeed scare off all but the most ravenous grizzly, but I decide instead to bang two rocks together. Our progress through beautiful, serene countryside is accompanied by rhythms any bear with a keen musical ear would easily recognise as early Santana.
We pass other hikers from time to time, observing the unwritten rule whereby you exchange greetings when the trail is sparsely populated, but not when the number of other walkers reaches a certain point. I don’t know if there’s a precise walker/density figure beyond which saying good morning starts to sound weird, but we can all sense when it’s been reached. Today, quite a few people say ‘sorry about your queen’ after hearing our accents. Which is nice. In general, the younger hikers don’t say anything at all.
I thought the eagle was about to take off. In fact, she was tensing up for a good poo.
Colter Bay Village is a summer camp offering kayaking, canoeing, motorboats and lake cruises. This is a stock shot of their marina as it should look:
And this is what it looked like when we were there. #ClimateChange
Saturday 10 September
I’ve got some of these photos in the wrong order, I think. Does that matter? Only to my reader. Hello, Carol! Anyway, today we’re off to the elegantly named Jackson Hole and its Cowboy Village Resort. Yee-ha! Our cabin has a pair of double beds arranged bunk bed style, which will prove a little challenging come nighttime.
Before that, we embark upon a two-and-a-half-mile walk to Inspiration Point, which overlooks Jenny Lake. It’s on this walk that we come across the bald-headed eagle. Actually, someone on the trail points it out to us, making the be-quiet sign as we approach. We take about 300 pictures and wait in vain for it to swoop off to fetch a carp or something. It just perches there, so after a while we reluctantly proceed with our walk.
Returning to the same spot an hour or so later, a couple of guys with excited expressions put their fingers to their lips as we approach. I smile and nod in an attempt to convey that, yes, we already know about the eagle. It doesn’t work. Their admonitions get more frantic, involving jabbing their fingers towards the tree, making ‘calm down’ and ‘zip your lip’ gestures.
As we get close one of the guys whispers conspiratorially ‘there’s an eagle up in that tree!’ I glance up. ‘Still there? All the other ones have gone, I see.”
Sunday 11 September
We’re still in Jackson and still avoiding bears. We walk to lakes Taggart and Bradley in the morning and in the afternoon take a three-hour, 13-mile float raft trip down Snake River, accompanied by a dozen American tourists and one very knowledgeable oarsman called Dave.
He tells us that Jackson is second only to Manhattan in terms of real estate prices, driven ever-upwards by ultra-wealthy second-homers. He identifies the trees and birds we pass and is happy to tell me exactly what a dude ranch is.
About two hours into our peaceful meander through the Wyoming countryside, one of our fellow travellers asks a question. “What river is this?” she asks. That’s a bit strange, like being shown around Windsor Castle and at the end asking the guide “Does this castle have a name?” But then her husband outdoes her. He asks Dave “Does the river go around in a circle?”
The scenery is beautiful and, like so much of what we see on our US holiday, impossible to capture on film.
In the evening we explore the town of Jackson Hole. It soon becomes obvious we’re in the Souvenir Hoodie Capital of America. Virtually every other shop sells Wyoming apparel, bringing enormous economic benefits to *checks labels* Pakistan.
The town is strong on its Wild West heritage and apparently hosts cowboy-style shoot-ups during the holiday season. I suppose it’s the hats that tell you whether you’re witnessing one of those or a real-life modern-day shoot-up. We eat burgers at a down-and-dirty sports bar – anything beyond the $ or $$ bracket is prohibitively expensive for us given the state of the exchange rate.
We fancy rounding the evening off with a quick beer so poke our noses into a couple of bars. The Cowboy Bar is clearly for tourists and the Roadhouse Pub is 100% full of locals. So we reject them both, pretty much on those grounds.
The geothermal features of Yellowstone National Park are pretty amazing. And there are loads of them. If you were to add together all the geysers and hot springs around the world, including Iceland’s, Yellowstone would still outnumber them. They’re a bit like the antiquities dotted around Rome: there are so many of them, the less dramatic examples are just lying about without fuss or fanfare. Instead of “This? Just a bit of an arch from around Jesus’ time” it’s “Oh, that steam belching out of the grass? It’s nothing, don’t worry about it.”
If you’d like to know what exactly lies underneath Yellowstone that causes such phenomena, this is an illuminating (and quick) read. More worrying, here’s what might happen if Yellowstone erupted.
So we drive and walk around in slack-jawed wonder at this other-worldly landscape. ‘Old Faithful’ is justifiably the most famous of all the geysers. Don’t ask me how, but they can predict within a margin of about twenty minutes when it’s going to erupt. It was just by chance that I was wandering past early on our first morning when it ‘went off’. It’s an impressive sight, accompanied by a glorious whooshing noise. Of course, people being people, there are many cries of ‘LOOK AT THAT!’ (Yes, it’s the reason we’re here) and ‘WOW THAT’S AMAZING JUST LISTEN TO THAT NOISE!’ (We’re trying to, you moron.) Or a car alarm will go off just as it erupts, but that’s only if a Kevin Mills from England happens to be filming.
The Old Faithful Inn has a definite old-timey feel about it. It clings to a bygone age, resolutely refusing to display newspapers, show TVs in any public areas or offer anything but the slowest WiFi in one small part of the complex. It was only because the flags were at half-mast that we had a suspicion someone important had died. (It turned out to be the Queen.)
All that I can deal with. We’re not here to consume news or watch Strictly. It’s the terrible dining facilities that rankle. The buffet mentioned in the previous post was good but pricey (£140, with two glasses of wine), and you had to book in advance. The other food outlets bizarrely close at seven o’clock, just when most people would start getting peckish. When I catch one that’s actually open, the food looks shockingly poor. The veggie options are just words on a menu rather than physically available items, and the coffee tastes like it was made with half a teaspoon of powdered Maxwell House. (Is that still going?) But they can charge what they like and serve what they like because, unless you’re in an RV, the Old Faithful Inn is the only show in town.
Labor Day. Not sure what that means for your average American, but it doesn’t seem to have any effect on what we do. Which is to take an hour-long Alaska Air flight from Seattle, Washington to Bozeman, Montana. The views from the cabin are beautiful.
We go to the Avis desk to pick up the keys for what we’re expecting to be a little Mazda runabout. The lady behind the counter doesn’t ask us if we’d like an upgrade. Instead, she presents it as a fait accompli.
“I have a seven-seater all ready for you.”
Er, we don’t really want that, thanks.
“No? I can do you a minibus if you’d rather.”
I turn around to check there aren’t hordes of other people acting like they’re members of our family. There’s only the two of us, I say. Haven’t you got anything a bit more like a regular sedan?
In the end we settle on an enormous Toyota 4Runner SUV. Because of my mini-stroke, I am forbidden to drive for the first few days of our time in the US. It’s so frustrating: I can’t walk, can’t drink and can’t drive. So Carol reluctantly clambers up to the driving seat. We head south, making sure we don’t break the speed limit by a single mph (metre per hour), and are soon at the head of a long trail of traffic. But better safe than sorry, eh?
It’s a lovely drive, mostly alongside a river that looks cool and inviting but is probably near freezing. We arrive at our hotel in Yellowstone, Wyoming, in late afternoon.
Steps: We’re mostly in the metro, the plane or the car, so a disappointing 6,779. It’s not so bad on me old plates, though.
Tuesday 6 September
We’d pre-booked a safari around the north-western part of Yellowstone. We meet up with our two guides, Scott and Lucy, climb aboard their van (we’re the only customers today) and head into the park. We see elk, a couple of bears, two coyotes, a big brown fox, loads of bison and several birds but sadly no wolves.
At one stop, as we train our binoculars on a distant elk, a big, hirsute, heavily tattooed guy lumbers towards our little party. “Who’s the guide, here? You the guide?” He points at Scott, who nods. The man leans in close. “I gotta question for you.” I’m a bit nervous about what will happen next.
“Do they use toxins on the roadside verges to control invasive species?” he asks.
Is that it? At least he could have added, “Well do they, punk?”
Click to enlarge:
Wednesday 7 September
Our destination today is Old Faithful, Yellowstone’s famous geyser. But there are plenty of other natural features to see along the way. Places like Sublime Point, Yellowstone Falls, Steamboat Geyser, Artist’s Paintpots and possibly others. Don’t test me. At each stop we get out of the car, walk to the feature – with me doing my best Hopalong Cassidy impersonation – and take probably 20 identical photos on our near-identical cameras, knowing even as we click the shutter that we’ll inevitably delete up to 100% of them.
Then we climb back into our massive car. The Toyota has a running board and various load-bearing handles, but I never quite manage the trick of levering my frame in and out of the vehicle without looking like someone who’s clearly unaccustomed to doing either. It’s like climbing over stiles back in Dorset: is it left leg first or will that necessitate some sort of awkward switcheroo at the top?
What’s remarkable is that at each of these stops there is always a restroom. It might just be a WC over a hole in the ground, but as long as people put the lid down afterwards it doesn’t smell, even when the temperature is in the mid-30s. And there are always copious rolls of toilet paper, not those flimsy dispensers you get in UK motorway service stations which grudgingly release a single sheet at a time, or are the ones where you have to fumble around inside the machine for the end of the roll. Gross.
We arrive at the Old Faithful Inn at teatime. We can’t afford the main hotel so stay in a hostel-like wooden shack in the grounds. There’s no wi-fi, no aircon, no safe and not enough room to swing a coyote. But it’s good enough for the two days we’ll be here. In the evening we eat at the nice but ruinously expensive buffet in the main hotel and plan tomorrow’s activities. Spoiler: they’re all centered around looking at geysers.
Steps: 27,436. The good news is my foot isn’t hurting anymore.
On 1 September 2022, Carol and I finally boarded a British Airways Boeing 787 Dreamliner to Seattle after a delay of 24 months. The delay wasn’t BA’s fault. It was that bloody pandemic. In fact, we started planning the holiday way back in 2019, so we’d been waiting almost three years to get airborne.
During that time, hotel and car hire prices had been rocketing as fast as Boris Johnson’s reputation had been plummeting. And then, about three weeks before we were due to fly, I had what turned out to be a mini-stroke and it was doubtful whether I’d be allowed to fly at all. Thankfully, although my insurance went sky-high, at least we could, too.
So off we go. First stop, Seattle.
We check into downtown’s Palihotel near Pike Street Market and immediately head off to do touristy things, namely visit the Space Needle and a museum dedicated to works by the glass sculptor Dale Chihuly.
Timelapse taken through the Loupe, a revolving glass floor near the top of the Space Needle. I’d like to have stayed there for a full revolution, but that would have meant 45 minutes out of our schedule. And probably a flat battery.
It’s been a long day so we head back to our hotel for dinner and sleep.
Steps: 10,590. (I’ve done something bad to my left foot and every step hurts, which is going to be a problem if it doesn’t clear up soon. I’m now on statins and blood thinners following the mini-stroke, so I have to be careful about which painkillers I take. And as I don’t recognise any of the brands on sale here, I don’t take any.)
Saturday 3 September
Seattle is famous for its coffee and the Seattle Coffee Works doesn’t disappoint. Little do we know that this will be virtually the last time we get a decent cup of coffee for the next three weeks.
We head off for a walk along what the locals almost certainly don’t call ‘the front’ and stumble across the Edgewater Hotel. This establishment gained notoriety amongst rock fans following certain unorthodox fish-based practices carried out by members of Led Zeppelin and Vanilla Fudge, and documented by Frank Zappa on his 1971 album ‘Live at Fillmore East‘.
A host of pop, jazz, soul and rock stars have stayed at the Edgewater, including the Fab Four. Today, the hotel’s gift shop is stuffed with merch associated with these acts, but none to do with Zappa, Led Zeppelin or Vanilla Fudge. Funny, that.
Continuing today’s musical theme, we head off to the Museum of Pop Culture. Housed in a slightly mad building designed by Frank Gehry are around 80,000 rock, pop and sci-fi artefacts. It’s basically an enormous Hard Rock Cafe without the burgers. There’s loads to see (it’s particularly strong on those sons of Seattle, Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana), and soundproof rooms where you can practice on drums, keyboards, bass or guitar, either on your own or with your mates. I was able to confirm that, yes, I will never be a drummer. But it’s still a lot of fun pounding the kit.
From here we headed to Pioneer Square. It’s a neighbourhood the guidebooks describe as edgy and vibrant, so often euphemisms for decidedly dodgy and potentially violent. It doesn’t work out that way for us, but a few minutes in the area – as in many parts of Seattle – hint at the massive problems America has with homelessness, mental health issues and widespread drug addiction.
Lunch in a modest, fast-food cafe next to Paget Sound consisted of two dry, bland sandwiches and a couple of Cokes, for $40. Sidenote: the debate in Britain about whether sandwiches should be cut into triangles or rectangles is circumvented in America by the simple expedient of not cutting them at all.
Slightly limping steps: 11,738
Sunday 4 September
Bit of an aimless day. We had planned to hire a little boat and toodle around Paget Sound but we can’t find the right boatyard. So we end up wandering about, at one point finding ourselves walking along the tiny narrow pavement of a fast flyover in order to get from one neighbourhood to another. We pause at the Hendrix statue, admire the architecture of Seattle’s Metro and stare in awe at the enormous fire trucks and their artwork. The trucks are so long, they need a firefighter at the back of the fire truck to steer the rear wheels. He or she is called a tiller and must learn very quickly to forget everything they know about steering around corners. This is why.
A good and for once not eye-wateringly expensive meal at a joint called The Alibi Room rounds off our visit to Seattle. Back at the hotel, we insert earplugs and try to sleep while being serenaded by the city’s nightly chorus of police sirens, screaming addicts and screeching tyres.
My wife and I celebrate our birthdays within two days of each other, the 7th and 9th of July respectively. What with my dad’s on the 12th and Georgia’s on the 30th, it can be an expensive month.
Still, start as you mean to go on and all that. So as Covid-19 restrictions gradually ease up and pub and restaurant doors open up, we head to the Ivy Cafe in Wimbledon Village to celebrate the first of these special occasions. The 50% occupancy rule is tough on the hospitality industry but it’s brilliant for us. We receive excellent service throughout and aren’t troubled by people bellowing at each other at the bar. And the food is brilliant, as you’d expect from The Ivy.
A passing waiter overheard me wishing Carol a happy birthday and presented her with this at the end of the meal
On the following day, Sarah (our other daughter) takes us kayaking up and down a small stretch of the Thames near Hampton Court. The weather is overcast and a tad chilly, the benefit of which being we have the river pretty much to ourselves.
I know you’re bursting to find out: What’s the difference between a kayak and a canoe? In a canoe, you kneel uncomfortably and use a single-bladed paddle, while in a kayak the paddle is double-bladed and you sit down like a proper person. Kayak is also worth a lot more in Scrabble.
My post-lockdown birthday treat is a night at the Compleat Angler Hotel in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, with a long-ish walk in the Chilterns either side of it. We’d heard the area was good for spotting red kites, and blow me if that isn’t the first thing we see when we drive into the car park. It’s huge, more brown than red to my eyes, very graceful in flight and with a distinctive forked tail.
Good pic, eh? So clearly not one of mine. It’s by Dick Forsman
Earlier, we’d taken the first of our National Trust circular walks. It starts off with a fantastic view overlooking Aylesbury Vale before descending (oh dear – that means a steep climb at the end of the walk) to a variety of woods and chalk grasslands, and a brief encounter with the PM’s country home.
You must remember to shut the gate
Sternly-worded signs warn walkers not to stray from the paths near Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country retreat. In fact, the public footpath takes you right across the main, heavily-defended driveway. We didn’t linger and I didn’t take a photo, although I’m sure they got one of us
It pissed down, so when our trail map offered an opportunity to shave an hour or so off the walk, we gratefully took it
The hotel has function rooms with names like Windsor, Sandringham and Balmoral, which tells you a lot about the kind of visitors the place likes to attract. This part of the Chilterns is a very wealthy area – perhaps all parts are – with almost every other car bearing an I’m-rich-but-still-need-to-self-validate personalised number plate.
A lovely nineteenth-century bridge connects the hotel to the rest of Marlow. It seems as if there are two separate bodies responsible for its upkeep.
The bridge itself seems freshly painted, while the road’s ironwork needs a bit of TLC
Our evening got off to a glacially slow start, with the barman not only keeping to a rigid physical distancing policy of at least six metres, but also ensuring the timespan between us ordering drinks and him delivering them would be enough for any lingering bacteria adhering to the glasses to perish through sheer boredom. Still, the time allowed me to open my birthday cards. This one from Georgia had at least 16 Beatles song titles hiding in the congratulatory message within.
‘They say it’s your birthday…’
But things quickly improved once we moved to the restaurant. Courses arrived after suitable intervals and just when I thought it was all over, it was my turn to be surprised by an unexpected bonus.
Our room had a brilliant view of the Thames but neither of us slept well. Maybe we’d had too much food and drink, and I couldn’t seem to get the heating down low enough. It was baking. Then at about 4am the TV suddenly burst into life. It briefly displayed its brand name – PHILIPS – then the screen filled with white noise. Yes, just like in that Poltergeist movie. I found the remote control and turned it off. About half an hour later there was a loud crack emanating from the bedside table, and I found myself wondering about the history of this 400-year-old building. I’m normally a total sceptic about hauntings and ghosts and whatever, but it would only have needed once more incident for me to rethink my position on that.
The view from our room
Table service in the restaurant was fine for our evening meal, but Covid-19 meant breakfast had to be served in our room. No, me neither. It was quite tasty, but in reality neither of us was at all hungry
We’re in no rush to get home so have plenty of time for the second of our National Trust-recommended walks. It’s a five-mile, 16,000-step circular ramble through absolutely stunning Chilterns countryside. We pass through pretty meadows, woods of towering beech trees, fields of corn and wheat, and chalk grasslands teeming with wildflowers. Isolated buildings include Grand-Designs style converted barns and thankfully-unconverted actual barns. The walk starts and ends in Hambleden Village, a picture-postcard village that’s well-known to TV and movie location scouts. Above, red kites are so abundant that eventually we don’t even bother getting the binoculars out. How long before they’re reclassified as vermin?
Colstrope Farm, as seen Downton Abbey, Midsomer Murders and more
A thistle. I think.
Carol at a kissing gate
Foxgloves grow by a wall made in the local style, with knapped flint and brick dressings
Wildflowers at the entrance to a well-fortified farm complex. The Middle-Eastern owner caught us gawping, and we exchanged a few pleasantries before he swept off in his Bentley (reg ART 15S).
Vintage advertising signs adorn the village’s old-school garage
Well, that was it for our two birthdays. Next up, my Dad’s. He’s reached an age for which the card manufacturers don’t make age-specific birthday cards, so I’ve had to improvise.