My aim for today was to get to the Grand Canyon in the early afternoon to give me enough time to visit all of the various viewing points. This meant I again had to get up relatively early although it was *only* a six-hour drive I had to do today. I left the hotel around 7am and it rapidly became apparent that the temperature had plummeted overnight. Exhibit A:
This is what happens if you leave a drink in your car overnight in North America in the winter. Pepsi lolly anyone? (After about an hour of driving this reverted to liquid Pepsi with ice cubes in, which was actually quite nice. I suppose the problem is that if the bottle had been full I may have had nasty surprise when it started to thaw out.)
The scenery rapidly changed from coniferous mountains in the snow to this:
This was probably over the course of around sixty miles, which is not much really. It’s something you don’t really get in the UK (or indeed most of Europe). Although there may be more mountains in some areas than others everything is generally green (and pleasant). The the US you can go from grassland to mountains to desert to scrub in the time it would take you to drive from London to Manchester.
As I headed through the desert to monument valley I did start to feel quite isolated. I must have driven for sixty or seventy miles at one point down quite a small road and not seen anything or anyone. Today the temperature didn’t get much above twenty degrees but in the summer, when the temperature can rise to the high forties, you must be able to relatively rapidly get yourself into quite a nasty situation. Even without the heat you do start thinking about what would happen if you broke down – no phone signal, no settlements anywhere close to walking distance and very little through-traffic. That’s why I made sure in the morning that I had several large bottles of water in the car.
Within a couple of hours I started to arrive in the ‘monument valley esque’ geology:
I’m not 100% on how these stacks and features form but I presume that it’s by a similar process to that which formed devil’s tower in Wyoming: very long-term erosion of the general landscape with the exception of any particularly hard volcanic (or other) rock – which is left behind to form stacks.
The closer I got to monument valley the busier the roads became. By the time I was driving down ‘the road’ (you know, the one from the old Marlboro adverts – which also appears on any kind of merchandise to do with the US west) I was in a convoy of trucks and SUVs.
As each stack came into site I had to become wary of what all these other cars were doing. They started to be affected by random attacks of extreme braking. This is what I call the ‘moose effect’, named after the first time I saw it occurring – in Yellowstone several years ago. On that occurrence a multiple car pileup was very nearly caused by a solitary moose. The moose wasn’t anywhere near the road – it was just standing doing moose stuff next to a lake a few hundred metres from the road. The problem was that as soon as people saw the moose they all stood on the brakes of their vehicles so they could take a picture of it. This was fine in principle if you ignored the fact that there were twenty other cars following closely behind them. That one moose resulted in cars fanned out all over the road (and some off the road) as they all simultaneously saw the moose, stood on the brakes and them swerved to avoid the already-stationary cars in front of them.
So today, at the point on the the road where you head over a rise and then get hit full on with the ‘monument valley’ view, the same thing happened. Everyone stood on the brakes and dived off the road to take photos. I, of course, didn’t engage in this dangerous past time:
The other main hazard I’ve been keeping an eye out for on the road is animals. In the UK there are often all variety of warning signs for deer, sheep, cows, horses and Muscovy Ducks (although I think the Highway Code had the broader definition of ‘waterfowl’ for that one). Despite all these signs it is very rare to actually see the indicated animal causing trouble on the roads. In the US it’s the opposite. When there’s a sign warning of deer you know there will be deer around somewhere. When there’s a moose warning sign you know to get your camera out and hover your foot over the brake pedal.
Going through the desert today I wasn’t even sure what animals some of the warning signs were referring to. There was one that looked like a scaled-up Guinea Pig, one that looked like a very bedraggled dog and a very large sign warning of something resembling a large cat lashing out after having an unexpected bath. I did see some shapes running across the road in front of me at times but couldn’t really tie them to any of the signs I’d seen.
The other thing I made sure of was not to ‘re-run-over’ any road-kill that that was already on the carriageway. That was another lesson I learnt when driving through Yellowstone. I was driving up quite a steep gradient at the time and saw something furry squashed in the middle of the road. Before I could do anything I’d run straight over it again. I remember thinking ‘what on earth was that? It looked black and white…’ and then the smell hit.
It had been a skunk.
Everything stank. I opened the windows and that only made it worse (I think some of the spray was on the outside of the car). I was almost sick. For the next few hours I kept getting wafts of this horrid, putrid smell. And so, now, I avoid anything that’s already dead on the carriageway, just in case.
I pressed on out of monument valley towards the Grand Canyon. The terrain was typical American West: lots of red and brown rock formations and scrub plants. I think this is one of the areas of the US that I like the most. It’s so far removed from anything you get in the UK or Europe and it has that whole ‘big sky’ thing going on. It’s rare to get an uninterrupted view of the horizon in the UK.
A few hours later I arrived at the Grand Canyon. It was quite big….