We arrived in Phoenix mid afternoon on Christmas Eve. The hire car we’d booked 3 months previously to cover our 3 US State road trip….had closed early at 3pm. After 40 minutes of panic they’d sorted it out and a 2 hour drive later we arrived in Sedona in a brilliant orange Jeep. At least it would be easy to find in the car park. We checked in to the Casa Sedona Inn (https://www.casasedona.com/en-us) a beautiful room with a log effect fire and a huge bed and even bigger jacuzzi. It was unseasonably very cold, we’d just missed the milder weather of the week before and the low hanging clouds meant we couldn’t see much; but Pizza is a cure-all so we stuffed our faces at nearby Pisa Lisa (great food, great service, cold restaurant) then got an early night.25 Dec woke at 5am! By 7am I was wallowing in the giant jacuzzi in mineral salts; learned a lesson, let them dissolve before getting in and sliding around on a bed of gravel. Breakfast at the hotel and then out to meet Dan and Andrea, in town visiting his family. They joined us in our car and directed us on a scenic drive around Sedona. Unlickily, still very heavy cloud and it had rained heavily overnight making for some pretty messy trails, but we drove around to several scenic lookouts to get our first sight of the stunning red rocks this area is famous for. The vistas are breathtaking and from my English perspective it’s incredible to look out on to landscapes recalled from Wild West movies seen as a kid. These ancient red rocks were formed over a 300 million year period of rising and receding sea levels, distributing mud and sand which over time hardened to form the sandstone rocks. The red colouring comes from minerals and iron oxide and when the sun finally broke the cloud, the view was transformed as these imposing ancient boulders glowed. Following a scenic loop we drove to Midgley Bridge on Highway 89A. The bridge is obvious from the road but if you park and wander down the steps leading below the bridge you get a great vista over Oak Creek Canyon from which several trails lead, including the Huckaby Trail and Jim Thompson trail… but as it was wet we stuck with the car.
The cloud lifted again at the Chapel of the Holy Cross designed by architect Marguerite Staude and built on Coconino National Forest land. Emerging from the buttes of red rock it was completed in 1956 and features a 90 feet tall iron cross.
A drive to a slightly higher elevation along Oak Ridge Pass took us back in to low cloud but a beautiful unexpected snowy landscape.Back in to town where pretty much everything was closed on Christmas Day but we bagged a table at a local Mexican restaurant where the 4 of us had an early dinner before calling it a day.
Dec 26. We left Sedona after a surprise breakfast with old friends Garth and Marie who live in Los Angeles. Seeing my photos on instagram and realising we were all in the same place at the same time, they texted and we got an hour together to catch up before we all left town. Fantastic start to the day, haven’t seen them for about 5 years.
We took a scenic route out of Sedona and drove higher up towards Flagstaff through amazing winter scenery. Evergreens loaded with snow and deciduous trees looming silently like frosted skeletons. Snow capped red rocks towered in the background. We drove through this for around an hour, bypassing Flagstaff, heading to Phoenix for the night. Shortly after Flagstaff the snow had completely disappeared as we dropped in elevation and took a slight detour sliding across a muddy field to an experimental architectural town called Arcosanti; a fascinating conceptual urban city experiment started in 1970 by Italian architect Paolo Soleri in Mayer, Arizona. Soleri, who studied at Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture school, wanted to create a low impact city devoid of cars and self contained for its citizens. You can read more about it here in an article published by Wired Magazine https://www.wired.com/2013/04/arcosanti-paolo-soleri Looking a little run down and in need of funding and with Soleri now dead, building still continues with students and volunteers who in exchange for their work can live at Arcosanti for free or minimum rent. They make hundreds of cast bronze decorative bells and ceramics and have a cafe; each project creating a revenue stream for the upkeep and continued building. Existing structures include an amphitheatre, swimming pool, 5 storey visitors centre, apartments and greenhouses.
From there to Scottsdale to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and architecture school ‘Taliesin West’. We had to do the night tour as all the day tours were sold out so we sadly missed the views of red rocks and desert landscape which hugely influenced his designs. His favourite colour was ‘Cherokee Red’ used throughout the buildings. It was interesting albeit rather formulaic and the encouraged participation to ask as many questions as possible was often greeted with a somewhat dismissive response. It’s definitely worth the drive out here or even a detour but come during the day when the buildings can be appreciated in context. https://franklloydwright.org/taliesin-west
Dec 27. Drove from Phoenix 2 and a half hours to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument meeting our friend Danny on the way at a cafe in Ajo. Passed Border Control, it’s very close to the Mexican Border. The small town of Ajo hasn’t got a lot to hold you but it’s a friendly place with a small stretch of alleyway dedicated to street art and an indoor vintage/junk market held in a large old industrial shed.
Once at the park’s Kris Eggle visitor centre we left Danny’s car and paid the $25 for the one vehicle and followed the popular scenic Ajo Mountain Drive; a 21 mile loop through a landscape dominated by towering Organ Pipe and Saguaro cacti. At only 21 miles long the loop still took 2 hours at a slow pace driving on the loose gravel road stopping now and again to take photos.
The weather held for the 2 and a half hour drive from the park on to Tuscon. Passed through two border patrols; at the second 2 agents were battling with their outdoor space heaters; at 5pm the cold was rolling in… a third asked to see our passports. It wasn’t intimidating and the young agent was friendly. Back in Tucson Dave and I checked in to the eccentric Air B&B ‘Tin Town’; a Wild West mash up which extended to our room themed as a Western Saloon bar. To reach it we walked through a ‘barber shop’ a ‘General Store’ past a caboose, several mannequins, part of a train complete with track and hundreds of other oddities…in fact it features repurposed building materials from the old Tucson Movie Studios and memorabilia from original Western stars. It won’t be to everyone’s taste but for us it was perfect; a fabulous place and the bed was the most comfortable we’d slept in for years. Pat is also a lovely woman – you can rent a room here: https://www.airbnb.co/room/21578184?source_impression_id=p3_1579046310_KVrO39UOhf0A2SVf Poured with rain at night but stopped long enough for us to walk the 15 minutes to the Congress Hotel to meet Danny for dinner at their in-house bar and restaurant called The Cup. Beautiful historic building with lots going on including live music, bars and a club https://hotelcongress.com/ Back in Tin Town we plugged our phones in to charge near the old one arm bandit on the full size bar, admired the guns, muskets and knives on the walls and fell asleep to the sound of the rain bouncing off the roof.
Dec 28. Met Danny for breakfast at Bobo’s, a well known Tucson diner spot for your typical American breakfast http://www.bobostucson.com As a side note Bobo’s sell their own brand t-shirts and they’re pretty cool. Back in the jeep to Sonora Desert Museum https://www.desertmuseum.org to see more cacti and this beautiful creature below; a mountain lion/Puma. I don’t like seeing animals enclosed but he looked restful basking on the rocks in the sun. There’s a lot here and children must love it. Botanical gardens teeming with cacti varieties, several animal enclosures, birds of prey demonstrations, a gallery, a walk through hummingbird enclosure, reptile house and a ‘Packrat Playhouse’ for young kids. It’s not a traditional museum but more of a zoo/botanical garden. Would I recommend it? If you have kids, a definite yes, they will get a lot from the experience and learn about desert life, but if you’re 3 adults who’ve been to a lot of things like this before then I’d only recommend it to enthusiasts or people who have an interest in desert plants. The range of cacti here is fascinating. Some of my favourites below. Dave and Danny were getting a little ‘cacti-ed’ out so we wasted some time at the Old Tucson Wild West Show. At $60 for 3 adults, it’s a hammy set up aimed mainly at kids with a disney-fied notion of an old Wild West town and mock shoot outs between trained stuntmen. Lots of ‘Western stores’ selling tourist tat, fudge, t-shirts etc. We didn’t anticipate it being quite as hammy as it was and I’m sure really young kids love it, but if you’re a group of travelling adults you’re better off giving it a wide berth and finding something more authentic. We hated it! I dipped in to the Lonely Planet Guide book which only really lists the obvious landmarks but it, along with the brilliant Atlas Obscura website mentioned the St. Francis de Xavier Catholic Church or ‘White Dove in Desert’ as it’s widely know. And it does resemble a glowing white dove emerging from the hard scrubland around it. Sitting 9 miles south of downtown Tucson the building’s brilliant white architecture is a beacon in the desert. Founded as a Catholic mission in 1692 building of the current structure started in 1783 when Southern Arizona was part of New Spain. oCmpleted in 1797, it’s said to be the oldest intact European structure in Arizona. Dinner in Tucson at Maynards Kitchen with Danny; another restaurant connected with the Hotel Congress but in a separate building and with a more upmarket dining space and menu. Great bar and food, one of the better meals we had in Arizona. https://hotelcongress.com/family/maynards
Dec 29. We left Danny for his drive back to LA and we headed for New Mexico with a stop enroute at the fantastic decommissioned nuclear warhead housed inside the preserved former Titan II Missile Silo 571-7 in Sahaurita just outside Tucson. The only one preserved out of 54 Titan II Missile sites that were on alert across the US from 1963 to 1987. You can only visit by booking on to an hour long tour which is well worth the entrance fee; outside of the incredible Red Rocks landscape and the snow scenes around Oak Ridge Pass, this was our highlight in Arizona. Frightening but absolutely fascinating stuff. Book tour tickets here in advance to make sure you can fit it in to your road trip https://titanmissilemuseum.org/. The missile is also viewable from above through a glass covered viewing dome.
Dave (below) walking from the control room to the nuclear warhead. Everyone over 6 feet tall had to wear a hard hat, it was so low. Next stop Tombstone, and we made a pretty significant detour with high expectations of a preserved authentic Wild West town with stacks of history; also a ‘highlight’ in the Lonely Planet Travel guide. We lasted 20 minutes in Tombstone. It’s truly awful. An example of town planners leaching out all the history to replace it with a tacky homogenised tourist attraction; effectively cheapening all the originality out of the place. O.K. Corral shoot outs are reenacted at an outdoor theatre on Allen Street and men parade the streets dressed as outlaws paid by local businesses to entice you to take carriage rides, buy t-shirts, keyrings, cowboy boots (made in China) and in to the many bars, restaurants and shops that line the street. We met an older guy working there who on recognising my northern English accent believed this gave him free reign to spout anti-Muslim racist crap; he was from Leeds, ridiculously dressed as a cowboy and allegedly used to be Tommy Steele’s drummer (one of many). It’s a lot to take in I know. He burbled some ignorant hate-speech for a few minutes. I had a go at him. We left.
People I Met Today. Tombstone, Arizona. Burt… or Bill, sadly I can’t recall…it was a fleeting meet. He was preoccupied cleaning out the popcorn machine at the former site of the O.K. Corral shoot out. Courteous and friendly and happy to pose for a photo.Crossing the state line we passed three huge billboards advertising ‘The Continental Divide’ near Lordsburg. The first, a picture of knives saying “Guy Stuff! Handcrafted Knifes.” The second with a photo of feminine jewellery…the third a picture of pottery and the words “Native American”. It’s like regressive advertising. New Mexico…miles and miles of vast open space, brilliant sunshine, bitter cold, trailer parks, scrub land, distant mountains…and the occasional brilliant billboard like one for a lawyer: “Hit by a truck? Call Chuck!’
Hatch, New Mexico, a tiny town famous for chili peppers…so small it could have been a case of blink and you’ll miss it…but it’s made absolutely sure in its own surreal way that you won’t. A dinosaur, a dodgem car, a big boy burger and an empty bath. Roadside America at dusk. My Dad is known as Hatch…but darn it, it was closed. On sending this image to him he suggested that perhaps he should leave his embalmed boy to them upon his death.We arrived in Truth or Consequences just after sunset. Checked in to our hotel owned by television mogul Ted Turner along with his 2 million acres of land in New Mexico…but no hot water in our room. Fantastic staff albeit pretty stressed as it was freezing cold outside once the sun dropped. We did however have our complimentary piping hot mineral soak in a private room in the spa, room service dinner and an early night; it had been a long driving day with another planned tomorrow.
Dec 30. Still no hot water but a 50% room discount and very apologetic staff…who in fact save this place from being a Fawlty Towers disaster. It needs an update and if you have several breakfast choices involving yogurt, then make sure you have the yogurt. Headed out on the 2 hour drive to White Sands passing through another Homeland Security border patrol just 5 minutes before the visitor’s centre. He asked us several questions; citizenship, why we are living in the US and waved us through. White Sands National Monument doesn’t disappoint, it’s stunning. Dunes of gypsum sand spread over 275 square miles of New Mexico desert, making it the largest of its type in the world, easily accessible just off Route 70, 54 miles north east of Las Cruces. A low entrance fee of $10 per person to drive the 10 mile loop. The tarmac road was clear to start but further in was covered with a thin layer of sand. We parked and walked in to the dunes, realising how easy it would be to get lost with no obvious landmarks. The landscape was dazzling; disorienting with the sun’s glare bouncing back from the sand against a brilliant blue sky. Despite the sun it was still very cold at 11am but we’d planned for it with several layers of clothing. For less able visitors you can drive through without leaving your car and there’s also a wheelchair accessible boardwalk early in the loop. For hikers there are trails. Read up before you visit, wear layers, sunglasses and suncream regardless of how cold it may be depending on time of year you visit https://www.nps.gov/whsa/index.htm.
Dave envisaging his Pink Floyd album sleeve. From White Sands we drove to a small community called Lincoln which they have lovingly preserved. Formed circa 1869, this land was roamed by Native American Indians until it was settled by Spanish pioneers. Billy The Kid escaped the courtroom jail in Lincoln shooting dead two local lawmen. Bought a ticket, $5 each at the time of our visit from the museum at the entrance to the town. Entry to the small museum which has some interesting artifacts such as original pioneer and Native American clothing, a history of the town… and access to the historic buildings including the courtroom and Tunstall general store with its original shelving.
I bought some stamps in the tiny old post office then wandered behind it to see the grave of John Tunstall (originally from Hackney in London) who was killed here by the Sheriff in 1878 which kicked off the Lincoln County War. A small brick built Torreon (defensive tower) dating to the 1850s is one of the town’s earliest structures, used to protect the community from the Apaches. Lincoln New Mexico is much more worthy of your time than Tombstone in Arizona. A long day driving across New Mexico; Truth or Consequences to White Sands, to Lincoln, on to Roswell eventually winding up for an overnight stay in Artesia. Roswell is the alleged site of an alien space craft crash in 1947. Pretty much the entire town has built a tourism industry around it. Even more cheesy than we thought it would be and not a photogenic town. We watched X-Files when it originally aired and thought Roswell to be a worthwhile detour but unless you are a huge fan of stuff like this I wouldn’t recommend it. We spent an hour in the Roswell UFO Museum which is silly fun https://www.roswellufomuseum.com but we didn’t feel there was enough in Roswell to hold us longer other than grabbing something to eat at a Mexican diner, where the young guy working the till told us he thought “this is the best restaurant in the world.” We admired his pride but looking around the room at the worn vinyl booths, scuffed floor and plastic condiment bottles made me feel sad. At 6pm there were only 3 tables occupied.
Only about a week in to our South West road trip and we’ve already driven around 1,400 miles. Ended our day a one hour drive from Roswell in Artesia. Not my photo (below). Just on the town’s outskirts we passed a huge refinery covered in lights, glowing in the dark. Resembling a science fiction cityscape it has a crude oil capacity of 100,000 barrels per day. We checked in to a basic hotel but conveniently located only an hour’s drive from Carlsbad Caverns.
Dec 31 and an early morning start. Left Artesia and drove through more vast open landscapes; oilfields scattered with nodding donkeys, a sulfurous smell heavy in the air. An hour drive to Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico. Parking at the visitors centre we paid the entrance fee and walked through the museum which gives detailed information about the rock formations; approximately 120 caverns are beneath the surface of the New Mexico Chihuahuan Desert, formed by sulfuric acid dissolving the limestone in turn forming the caverns. Out of the museum and following a pathway to the main cavern entrance, also the site between April to October of an evening show of thousands of bats exiting the caves to feed on insects. They’ve built a stone ampitheatre with seating to watch the spectacle; sadly we were here during the bats’ migration season so none to see. We followed a path 750 feet below ground. Covered in textured asphalt, dry but steep so footwear with a decent grip is good. It takes over an hour to walk in to the main chambers walking on a downward slope. There is a lift which takes you directly down if you aren’t up for the long walk; we were glad it was there for the return to the surface. In total we must have spent one and a half hours inside the caverns including the walk. It’s huge inside and quite beautiful. The official website https://www.nps.gov/cave/index.htm be aware of the different options they offer. If you want to do as we did, just turn up and pay an entrance fee and walk down, we didn’t book anything in advance. Other options include guided tours much more energetic which include wearing proper gear and crawling and climbing through the tunnels. For these you need to book a place in advance as they sell out.
Leaving the caverns we drove over the border and in to Texas…where we saw this incredible boat on a trailer at the gas station owned by a German couple now living in Atlanta. We were just outside Valentine heading to Marfa.
People I Met Today. At the same gas station filling up his flatbed truck with his dog sitting on the back, cattle rancher Bert Bloodworth in Sonora, Texas. “I’ve been jacking my jaw with these Brits, they’ve come a long way.”…putting his cowboy hat on Dave whilst saying: “How perfect does everything have to fall for you and me even to be here.” We said Texans are friendly…he replied “That’s because we’re alone out here!” He told us that his ancestor was Mayor of London Sir Thomas Bloodwort in the 1660s and even further back in history his ancestors were forest people called Blooders who processed the meat for royalty after their hunts. A huge part of travelling is meeting people, even the brief encounters and hearing just a snapshot of their stories. Texas. The Lone Star State. Flat wide open spaces, lonely roads for miles …and a lot of Stetsons. Driving further our next destination was Marfa, movie location for ‘Giant’ starring James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. They stayed at the Hotel Paisano which has some great black and white framed photos of them around the walls and a very cool bar. Marfa is pretty much the middle of nowhere, open roads reeling out across the dust; peopled with a population weighted at the top end by oil rich millionaires and cattle ranch money… and bizarrely pretty much a one road town running right through the middle of it taken over by Hipsters. Artist Donald Judd relocated here in the 70s from New York, creating large scale but minimal art installations and eventually buying an old army base and several hundred acres of land to form a gallery The Chinati Foundation. Prada came along an added a fake Prada store which sits marooned, juxtaposed with the empty desert just outside of town between Marfa and Valentine; which inevitably became an Instagram ‘must stop’ in a brilliant marketing play by the brand hashtagged #pradamarfa. Since then Marfa has become something of an arts centre with more galleries opening, some trendy restaurants and New Yorkers flying in for long weekends; bewildering many long term residents who have seen Marfa turn from cattle ranching and oil derricks to a ‘curated’ cultural hub. Old buildings still stand and the past sits surprisingly easy with the new.It’s not booming but what is here is perfectly pantoned. A handful of galleries you’d expect to see in New York, about 4 restaurants, 3 very cool hotels, vintage roadside signs and a couple of cool bars. Very friendly place, we really liked it. We stayed at The Thunderbird Hotel. http://www.thunderbirdmarfa.com People I Met Today. Marfa, Texas. David Pierce who saw us looking at an old broken down rig and truck and came to tell us a story. They were owned by the wonderfully named Diamond McSpadden who put two transmissions in the truck so it was able to pull the rig all the way up Mount Locke at 6,790 feet to drill for water. The McDonald Observatory now stands there. David built the Thunderbird Hotel in Marfa in 1959, selling it in 2005 and coincidentally where we were staying. His father opened a Ford dealership in 1946 which David took over before changing allegiance to Chevrolet when Ford wouldn’t allow him to sell the more upmarket brands like Lincoln. Now a cattle rancher…he’s not slowing down! So many other stories, there should be a book and a movie about David Pierce in Marfa, Texas.Jan 1st. Happy New Year! We are almost at the end of our road trip. Left Marfa early morning to drive 435 miles to Austin for our last 3 nights. Like a lady in Arizona told me: “It flattens your bum driving through Texas”. Between Marfa and Alpine we stopped at a small coffee shop confusingly called Tumbleweed Laundry. They’d repurposed a tumbleweed as a pendant light and their coffee menu was laid out in wooden scrabble tiles. Alpine sits close to Big Bend National Park and looked like a fun town, bigger than Marfa and more going on…some great street murals. Fueled up for the trip, we hit the road again. We’d booked an Air B&B in Austin but sadly it really wasn’t as described; the garden looked like a building site, the creek was a ditch with a temporary sheet of metal thrown across it and the cottage, as pretty as it was on the inside, stood right next to a busy main road. Luckily got a full refund from the owners and relocated to the fabulous Carpenter Hotel. A huge room styled in desert colours and a great onsite restaurant where we ended up for breakfast and dinner most days because it was so good. http://carpenterhotel.com
Jan 2nd. Walked around Austin, milder weather than what we’ve experienced the rest of the trip and grey skies lingering. A big student town, the streets are quiet with most of them still away visiting family and many businesses still closed for the holiday. A bit too quiet, lacking the atmosphere associated with a city. We walked along the Colorado riverfront which runs right through the city, across one of the bridges in to the Downtown Austin area, passing the State Capitol Building and heading for the Bremond Block Historic District. 11 beautiful historic houses unfortunately currently overlooking a huge building site and high rises.We haven’t seen a lot of art on this trip because most of the galleries were closed for the season but in Austin we visited The Blanton Museum of Art which has a great collection. These were some of my personal favourites. One of my favourite artists Charles White ‘Homage to Sterling Brown’ (1972), a large installation piece by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui. Large wire installation by Brazilian artist Frida Baranek and portrait of a boy by Texan artist Sedrick Huckaby.
And an amazingly detailed screenprint ‘Long Life to the Creative Force’ (1989) by David Botello (below).Just outside the gallery stands the artist Ellsworth Kelly’s ‘Austin’ a 2,715 square-foot contemplative space designed and gifted to Austin, Texas in 2015 by the artist. Luminous coloured glass windows, a wooden totemic structure and 14 simple black and white marble panels create a simple but calming atmosphere.
We headed back to the hotel to eat an early dinner and chill out. I found ‘Giant’ on the TV and caught up on a 1950’s Hollywood’s take on the Texas oil boom. The make up effects as the stars age throughout the saga are quite jaw dropping.
Jan 3rd. A sunnier day and the first we’ve been able to get out without loads of layers and coats. The South Congress part of town was more our sort of destination, low level buildings, trees, some fun independent shops and bars and a generally laid back vibe. Hipster-fied like most places are these days but that’s not always a bad thing, generally means you get cleaner streets and better food. The place must be jumping when SXSW rolls in to town with all the musicians and music industry folks taking over for the duration of the annual music festival. We had a leisurely wander in and out of boutiques and passed some time in a coffee shop. Generally though we don’t get the hype about Austin. Sure it’s a bit cool but there isn’t that much here to see, though I imagine it’s a great neighbourhood to live in. I think visiting during the festival or during late spring months before the heat sets in would be a livelier time to be here but it still feels like a template of a town where artists and musicians have come in and created a pretty homogenised version of what they create everywhere else. Anti-establishment loses its edge when it’s reproduced so similarly wherever you go. We’ve been fortunate to travel a lot in life and seen so many different places that perhaps we are doing a disservice to Austin; but having lived in London for 30 years it’s hard to hold a candle to that city for hip street life and cool music venues, maybe we’re too long in the tooth….but we both preferred being out driving across the large open spaces, seeing mountains in the distance, experiencing landscapes we’d grown up seeing in the Westerns. That was the Texas we enjoyed the most and the one that we will remember more keenly.