Crufts – 1

Crufts. The largest and most prestigious dog show in the world. Also a word that auto-correct is convinced should be ‘crafts’. Five times I had to write ‘Crufts’ at the start of is paragraph before it believed me. Two times just then. Auto-correct may have a point though. Crufts isn’t so much dog-showing as it is dog-craft. That much becomes evident to me as soon as I leave my car in one of the many car parks at the NEC (I’ve already forgotten which one) and start walking past the lake to the main exhibition halls. In the crisp early-morning light I am surrounded by people in grey-green or beige suits and dogs. Tens of dogs. Hundreds of dogs. All heading for their thirty-seconds of fame on a green square of carpet somewhere inside. 

After a few minutes (it’s early, I’m still waking up) I realise something a bit odd about the dogs enveloping me: they all appear to be mechanised. That is, none of them are actually walking to the venues. They’re in cages being carried; or cages on carts; or just standing in a cart or (in the case of one particularly large hound) straddled between two articulated carts. Most of them are also covered to some extent. Even the ones with several lofts-worth of natural insulation protecting them. Even the ones with dreads. They have blankets over them and various hat-type devices covering their heads. Some of the terriers have their own tents. 

This is dog-craft you see. These dogs are the best of the best, the result of many many years of selective breeding and many many hours of selective grooming. This is a theme that continues as I buy my ticket and walk into the first of the huge exhibition halls. 

These dogs are special. 

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it (return your British citizenship now please) Crufts is an immense event that spans four-days at the NEC in Birmingham. Each day sees different ‘groups’ of dogs undergo many rounds of judging. There are seven groups of dogs in total, two-per day with only one in the Friday, and on the Sunday evening the best seven individual dogs from each of these groups are put into the final round of judging for ‘best in show’. To give you an idea of scale, each day will see upwards of seven-thousand dogs go though the preliminary rounds. Each of these dogs will be local or national champions from across the UK, Europe and the rest of the World.

So what are the seven groups? Allow me to explain:

Gundog Group

This group contains the breeds of dog that most people will be familiar with and indeed will think of when you say the word ‘dog’. The biggest group by far it has a day of the show all to itself. Spaniels, Retrievers, Labradors and German Shepards all fall into this group.  The dogs in this group are seen as ‘popular’ dogs, or the ‘canine proletariat’ as I believe some people here refer to them as. They are the dogs you will see running round your local park on Sunday mornings, helping blind people cross over the road or finding someone trapped under the rubble after an earthquake. 

Working Group

These dogs are generally unionised and all members of the Labour Party. They are dogs were bred to work but usually don’t work with cattle or sheep. Familiar breeds in is group include the Boxer, Rottweiler and Great Dame. Some of the dogs in this group have had quite a rough ride in the media over recent years and have unfortunately ended-up being labelled as ‘dangerous dogs’ by the general public. This is unfair. All dogs will eventually become dangerous if they are mistreated enough.

Pastoral Group

City dwellers: These are the dogs you see every week on ‘CountryFile’, or hear barking on ‘The Archers’. Rural folk: These are the dogs you see through the mist and rain running around on the mountains, or pulling their owners down the street every morning. They are the Boarder Collies, the Old English Sheepdogs and, of course, Lassie. They are generally black and white or white and tan and, having been bred to heard farm animals, they will generally attempt to heard any group of dogs, people or others animals they happen to chance upon. 

Hound Group

This is me of the two groups being judged today. Hounds are generally quite large and lanky dogs who are known for their starring roles in horror films. Werewolves are a subset of this group – I have seen several large hounds who fit into this category today. Perhaps the most well-known breeds in this group are the Greyhound and the Bassett Hound. The latter of these has nothing at all to do with Licourice Allsorts. 

Terrier Group

The second of the two groups being judged today. Have you ever been chased down the road by a small dog who’s bark was grossly disproportionate to its size? That will have been a Terrier. To be fair the Terrier groups is much wider than that stereotype and includes some fascinating variety. There are varieties of Terrier for pretty-much every county in the UK but, bizarrely, the Yorkshire Terrier does not seem to feature as a recognised Terrier breed and is instead classed as a ‘Toy’. The Skye Terrier, which I figure must be quite a niche breed, does however have its own billing.

Utility Group

These are e dogs you get round when your toilet develops a leak or you have a power-cut. I think. They are the most patriotic of groups including, of course, the British Bulldog (Rule Brittania!) and the Japanease Akita. There are three categories of poodle in this group and a breed called the ‘Chow Chow’, which I honestly have no better idea than you about. I’m wondering if it is in fact a variety of dog chew that has been listed in the wrong page in the guide. 

Toy Group

This group is, in fact, primarily made up of well-groomed cats who have, for years, been infiltrating Crufts in an effort to undermine and discredit the organisation. A key requirement for the Toy group is that they must be able to fit in the average-size handbag and will have a ground clearance of such that they have to swim through all but the shallowest of puddles. If you ever see a dog at the Acadamy Awards or Golden Globes it will be from the Toy group. The dogs in this group however have no idea of how small they actually are and have a somewhat regal attitude to both their owners and other dogs – which isn’t surprising considering that most of them are cats. 


So there you have it! Those are the seven groups and I will spend the rest of today trying to figure out how exactly Crufts works, how the dogs are judged and who, ultimately, is the best of the best. 

Right now…it’s time for the Greyhound judging…





At some point we should start getting worried about Donald Trump. 

I’ve been thinking (and saying) that for well over six months now but seem to be in a minority. Trump is still being portrayed by many sections of the media as a kind of comic relief: a joke act to be laughed at the in the US presidential primaries. His ‘antics’ are presented in headlines with lots of exclamation marks: 

‘What will Trump do next?!?!’ 

‘Trumped!!: Read Trump’s outrageous comments on Mexicans!!’

Articles with him are usually peppered with jovial references to his ‘alleged hair’, his time on the apprentice or his tower in New York. In the UK he is compared to the ‘lovable buffoon’ Boris Johnson. ‘Look! They both have blond hair! Look! They both seem a bit dishevelled! Look! They both get up to antics! They’re basically twins!! Trump is the American Boris!!’ 


The problem is, this kind of commentary makes people familiar with Trump. It makes them think that he’s ‘an average guy’, that he knows what he is talking about and that any ‘gaffs’ are excusable and quite comical. Commuters read about the latest ‘Trumpism’ on their phones in the morning, make a comment to the person next to them (Have you seen what Trump’s done now?)’, laugh, and then click on a link to something else. Trump’s provided them with a bit of entertainment on the train to work.

But this is a man who is running to be President of the United States. This is a man who is vying to be the Commander in Chief of the world’s most powerful military machine. This is a man who wants to be looked on as the leader of the free World, as the global embodiment of everything that’s great about liberty, freedom and democracy. And he isn’t a million miles away from achieving that goal: It’s more likely than not that he’ll now win the Republican nomination. And then he has a 50/50 chance. Fifty-fifty. The toss of a coin. Heads you win, tails you get Trump. 

At some point we should start getting worried about Donald Trump. 

But why?’ You ask. ‘Sure, he’s a bit of a nutter but who isn’t these days? He has some strong views but a lot of people have sympathy for them.’

Wait what? 

I have strong views about the parcel delivery habits of the Royal Mail. I have strong views about the incorrect application of the word ‘literally’. I have strong views about the use of converted busses to run most of the rail services in the north of England. 

Donald Trump doesn’t have strong views. Donald Trump is a fascist, a racist and a very dangerous man

Too harsh? 
When I state the above to people they recoil a bit, sip their tea and say ‘oh surely he’s not that bad?’. 

Oh really? 

Let’s play a little game. Hopefully it will show you what I mean. This is how it goes: First, you take an outrageous quote from Donald Trump (spoken in 2016 need I remind you):

I am calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on… there is great hatred towards Americans by large segments of the Muslim population. …Wmust Make America Great Again.”

Hahaha! He said that?? Oh Trump you rogue! What will you do next? You’re so out there! What a maverick!!”

What you now do is take the same quote and swap out one of the words, to maybe put what he says in more of a historical context: 

“I am calling for a total and complete shutdown of Jews entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on… there is great hatred towards Americans by large segments of the Jewish population. …We must make America Great Again.”

Still think he’s a lovable rogue?

Can you image what would happen if Donald Trump said that? Overnight his campaign would have been over. He would have lost all support, all backers and sponsors and would probably also have been finished as a businessman. I think it’d be fair to say that he may even been forced to leave the United States. But when Donald Trump uttered the first quote his support soared. He went on to win the vast majority of the early primaries and dominate the news agenda. He followed his comments on Muslims with similar remarks about Mexicans. His support soared again. 

At some point we need to start worrying about Donald Trump. 

It’s all too easy to look back at history from a distance with scorn. Why on earth did so many people in the 1930s not see what was going on in Germany? Why did the United Kingdom do political deals with the man who would later flatten London and commit the greatest war crimes the world has ever seen? How foolish they must have been! How nieave! We would never make those mistakes today! We’re smarter than that now!

Look around people. The rhetoric and language that Donald Trump uses to demonise an entire people based on their religion is exactly the same as that which was used against the Jewish population in the 1930s. The Jews were used as a political scapegoat for the financial and political troubles that Germany found itself in. They were blamed for destabilising the economy, for conspiring against the German people and for making Germany weak and powerless. These accusations weren’t made overnight: they were built up over the span of a decade and numerous electoral cycles. They became so commonplace that people started to believe that parts of them might actually be true. And then they were true. They were accepted. The party that made them were voted into power. Three times. 

Donald Trump claims there is a Muslim conspiracy against the United States. He says that they have made America weak on the World stage. He would ban them from coming to America. He bellows that Mexicans are destabilising the economy through immigration and are responsible for a fair proportion of the crime across the great land of the free. This rhetoric, these fantasies, are striking a chord. They are repeated endlessly by a media organisation obsessed with celebrity and the shock factor. People start to think that maybe there is some truth in these paranoid delusions. 

And the rest of the World looks on with a mix of disbelief and mirth. 

At some point we have to start worrying about Donald Trump. 

I’ve spent a lot of time in the States and will happily vouch that the American people are amongst the most kind, generous, intelligent and helpful people you will ever meet. They are not (as they are commonly portrayed) a four-hundred million strong mob of red-necks who sit on their porches chewing tobacco and shooting passing rodents. They are a people who are constantly forging on into new areas of science, technology and the arts. They’ve driven us all into a remarkable new age of global communication and information technology. They are people just like you and me. 

But they are voting for Trump.  

I despair. I really do. I want to shake the population of the United States awake; to throw a bucket of water over them so they come round and tell me all about a strange dream they just had. 

In a way it’s easier to write off Trump as only being supported by hill-billies. It’s scarier when you realise that his support is spread far and wide, across the northern states as much as the southern and mid-western ones. 

I feel like I’m on a train that is careering off a cliff in slow-motion. When we stop humouring Trump and start treating him with the disdain that he deserves? 



One Year On

I couldn’t let this day pass without writing something on here. 

A year ago today is when it all began. I can’t remember exactly but around this time a year ago I think I was hurtling towards London Euston station on a Virgin ‘sauna train’ and about to be mistaken for a terrorist in the Kings Cross branch of Nandos. This evening I would board the Caledonian Sleeper and spend a night being buffeted by diesels before awaking under bright blue skies in glorious, snow-covered, Inverness. 

It’s strange to think that only a year ago I had no first-hand experience of the stunning beauty of the Scottish Highlands, the remarkable architecture of the city if of Edinburgh, or the bone-grating, soul-destroying monotony of three-and-a-half hours on the unwanted bastard offspring of a bus and pneumatic drill. (Even after all this elapsed time I’m still firmly of the opinion that the ride I had on that Pacer would have been much more comfortable if they hadn’t bothered with the rail conversion and had just driven the damn thing over the sleepers.)

It was a remarkable week. The breadth of experiences I had and variety of different places I visited made it feel like a year in itself. I was lucky with the weather (with one notable exception) and was only once consciously affected by a delayed train (something strange happened on the Night Riverera sleeper but I was half-asleep as most of that unfolded so it doesn’t really count).

I still have several pages of notes from that week that never even made it onto this blog. Like with the recent visit to the United States I will try and formulate these into something substantive when time allows me to. It may be this doesn’t happen until I decide to retire from my current line of work but who knows, maybe the time-travel experiments will start to yield some more positive results soon. 

It’s funny how, as you go through life, certain events will cause you to subconsciously drop a marker in the sand. You don’t realise this until an object, sight or smell triggers the neurons in your mind and, suddenly, you’re thrown headlong back into a moment from many years ago. An example of this for me would be whenever I’m somewhere that’s freezing cold. Despite having done my time in Northern Canada (in winter), being very cold always mentally links me back to a certain night of a holiday I took to Poland in the winter of 2010; don’t ask me why – it just does. Even if I’m walking on a mountain in sub-zero temperatures with a wind that’s blowing a gale I will make a little mental note that, while it may be quite cold, it’s nowhere near what I experienced that night in Poland. For some reason, this helps take a little bit of the bite out of the wind. 

Ever since the trip I took this time last year I’ve found that I’ve now got another of these markers in the sand:

Imagine a dark winter night. It’s not particularly cold but the rain is lashing down and a gusting wind is ensuring that you’re getting completely soaked. You’re walking through a city centre in these conditions. It must be very early in the morning because there’s no-one else around. All the shops are shut. Most of them are boarded-up or have metal shutters jammed half the way down which are rattling in the breeze. It’s close to Christmas but all the lights have been turned out. Over the houling wind you can just make out the sound of a rabid dog barking itself insane. Your eyes dart about searching for something, anything that proves that the place you’re in is still inhabited. All you see is darkness and decay. But what’s that? A hunched figure in the distance dragging itself across the road towards you. It points in your direction and starts cackling. You start it panic. Your pulse rises and you consider running blindly into the night…

But you pause. 

A flag springs up in your mind.

“This may be a pretty bad situation” you think to yourself, “but at least it’s not Blackpool”.



The Longest Day

I have returned. 

Please don’t ask me when it is, but I’m pretty sure of where I am – and that’s back in the UK. I got up at around 7am Pacific Time and am now sitting in Heathrow having a coffee at 11:30 GMT, or 3:30am Pacific. In true style I didn’t sleep on the overnight nine-hour flight from Los Angeles and ended up watching four films back-to-back, which have now merged into one in my over-tired mind. (To summarise the plot: Eleven cyborgs are sent back in time from a post-apocalyptic future to conduct a heist on three Las Vegas casinos. Ten of them are killed in the process (and none of them find Sarah Conor) and the surviving one goes on to have a brief career as an abusive drum teacher in New York. He’s rapidly stuck off for his tendency to ‘terminate’ band members who don’t meet his exacting standards and is exiled out of the US to the Australian desert, where he gets a ridiculously souped-up oil tanker and goes slightly mad while fleeing from a guy with the world’s best electric guitar / flame-thrower.)

I’m hoping the coffee will steel me for the hour tube journey into London to catch my train back up north. It seems as if I’ve been away for months. I was trying to remember earlier the incident with the snow-plough when I was driving to Flagstaff – but that seems like it happened a lifetime ago. This is always the way though. I’ll go back to work tomorrow and greet people as if I haven’t seen them for an age, in response to which I’ll get a puzzled look and a “Weren’t you just here a few days ago?”. I know as well that, by this time tomorrow, all of this will seem like a distant memory. That is also, always the way. 

Nothing particularly exciting happened on the flight back – except for the fact that it had wi-fi. 

It’s odd isn’t it? All those films in the eighties and nineties about ‘the future’ and none of them accurately predicted the ridiculous ability we now have to communicate with anyone and everyone, anywhere and anytime. Every hotel I’ve stayed in has had complementary wi-fi, even the ones nestled in the Colorado mountains. But the fact that I was able to sit in a pressurised tube, 36000ft above the Atlantic and communicate with people on Whatsapp is nothing short of crazy. If you start thinking about the technology involved with installing the equipment on the plane, maintaining a constant link to a satellite network and then navigating the message you send back down to a particular handset in a particular country that could, in theory, be anywhere in the world – it’s, as I said, crazy. If you described this technology to people thirty years ago they wouldn’t have thought it possible. A hundred years ago they would have thought you were a god. They would have talked about the endless possibilities opened up by instant mobile text, voice and video communication with anyone on the planet. But I can guarantee you that none of them – none of them – would have foreseen that this entire global communications grid would be built up solely to facilitate the transmission of increasingly complex pictorial humour relating to cats. 

Anyway, I must go and brave the tube now. I’ve finished my coffee and the freestyle jazz that’s playing in this Café Nero may cause me to do something reckless (early retirement?). I suppose the jazz is better that the transcendent choral music that now seems to be a staple of all the men’s toilets in Heathrow Terminal 2. (I don’t know what that is all about but, for a moment, I thought I had walked into a chapel. I imagine that it’s meant to be calming after a stressful flight but, to be honest, it’s just a bit odd. You stand by the hand driers expecting to be raptured.)

I’ll post some more on here in the coming weeks as there are some stories that I haven’t had a chance to tell. For now though I’ll leave you with a picture from yesterday. To my overly-tired (and rapidly failing) brain I can only assume from this picture that a) I visited Mars and b) There are now roads on Mars. 

So long. 



Anyone who’s ever seen the Spielberg classic ‘Duel’ will know the dangers that can be associated with encountering large trucks on desert roads. I first saw that film many years ago (we had it recorded off television on VHS) and it flashes into my mind every so often when driving in the states, especially in the scenery I’ve been in for the past few days. 

Strange things happen when you’ve been driving for a long time. In the UK there is generally something to always occupy you, even at the quietest times of the day / night. It’s rare in the UK that you get a non-motorway road that is dead straight for anything more than a mile or two. If you do then it’s usually an ‘old roman road’ and somebody is mandated to mention this as you drive down it (“Ooh this is a very straight road. We must be on the old roman section of the B472”). 

If you get out any road map of the US west, or look on google maps, you will see that in the mid-western states many of the roads are just straight lines, hundreds of miles long. This kind of makes sense: if you’ve got a flat plain a thousand miles across, where nobody’s that bothered about who owns what (when you have a ranch bigger than Wales you’re not so touchy on where the road goes) why would you not build all your roads in straight lines? The mid-west is also in the odd situation that, in many cases, the roads were the first thing there, or, if not, followed alongside the railroads (which were also dead straight). 

When you’ve been driving on a dead straight road for over an hour, and have only seen one or two cars going in the other direction, you start to get possessive. You also start looking for challenges or things to entertain you – this is true of all road users. Yesterday, after having over an hour of this on a particular road:

..and many miles left to go I suddenly spied a speck on the horizon. Right in the distance, maybe two or three miles away, a little black speck on my road.

‘Who is this?’ I thought. ‘Who is this that dares intrude on my road?’

Ten minutes went by. The speck became a blob. I was getting closer.

(At is point you must remember that 95% of all driving in the US is done on on cruise control. You set your car to 55 or 65 or 75mph and let it go. Speeding seems to be comparatively rare compared to the UK and only seems to happen in the cities. This is an interesting point. In over two-thousand miles of driving this week I can only recall two occurrences when someone shot by me on the interstate – the kind of thing that happens every thirty seconds on the M1. I think it’s because the police over here have quite a heavy presence on the highways and interstates, with cars parked in prominent positions at the road side with their radar guns going.)

The fact that the blob was getting bigger meant that my cruise control was calibrated slightly differently to the blob’s, and that in twenty miles or so I’d have to overtake them. 

Another ten minutes went by. The blob got big enough for me to determine that it was a truck. Trucks in the US are not speed-limited like in the UK and have huge engines so can easily keep pace with everyone else. On the long highways whether or not you’ll catch a truck depends very much on the road. Every time there is an up-grade (as it’s called) you will gain slightly on the truck as their cruise control takes longer to respond. On a steep down-grade the truck will gain on you as it’s brakes heat up and it begins it’s spiral of doom that ends in a emergency run-away truck escape ramp (these are a work of art in themselves and are found on all steep down-grades.)

The road I was on varied between level and gradual up-grades so, over the next ten miles I caught the truck up. It was quite a substantial truck with a bright blue cab and lots of chrome / truck-bling.

I overtook the truck and then spent the next ten-to-fifteen miles watching it disappear into the the rear view mirror. I thought nothing more of it. 

The road continued on. It passed over the summit of the landscape and then the road started to drop away in gradual, and in some places slightly steeper, downgrades. 

Twenty more minutes went by. 

I glanced in the rear-view mirror:

What was that? Imperceptible on the horizon was a large black spec. It couldn’t be could it?

The road went on and became quite undulating? My mind wandered for a while then, absent-mindedly, I glanced into the rear-view mirror:

Crap. This actually startled me quite bit. How’d he got so close so quickly? In an excellent piece of timing he also only turned his headlights on after I’d been looking for him for about a half-second in the mirror. It was almost as if he knew I was watching him. 

I was getting worried. Maybe I’d angered him by overtaking. Maybe this was the start of back-and-forth battle between us that would ultimately end in us both catering over a cliff. Maybe Spielberg was right. 

The gradual down-grades continued. Every time I looked in the mirror he was closer, black exhaust spewing from the vertical pipes either side of his cab every time his engine kicked up a notch. I was fighting a loosing battle. On a down-grade there was no hope. 

A few miles later he was practically on my bumper. The road dropped away ahead and I looked again in my mirror. He was gone! Disappeared! The car was buffeted to the right as he flew past my left hand side. As his cab passed mine I got a blare from the traditional American truck horn. 

Touché truck. You’ve been planning this for miles. 

He pulled over in front of me and then gradually started to open up a gap. I watched him disappear into the distance over the next twenty miles. Eventually, he became indistinguishable from the shimmering mirage as the road disappears into the horizon. 

You win this round truck. 

The whole thing had been played out in well over an hour and, as a result, I only had ten miles left until I had to turn right. For the rest of the day I kept half-expecting the truck to appear in my mirrors again. 




The House Always Wins

I’m back in Nevada. It took around five-and-a-half hours to get back here today but more on that later. The important thing is I’m now a mere hundred-miles from the airport where the first of the two flights that will ultimately get me back to the UK will leave tomorrow afternoon. I’m staying in a brand new Holiday Inn Express in the town of Mesquite. This town is only a mile over the Nevada / Arizona state line and hence is littered heavily with casinos and other gambling resorts. I’m also back in the Pacific Time Zone (GMT -8) so gained another hour. 

Upon arrival at the hotel I got another free upgrade – this time to a room with a balcony! This is the third upgrade I’ve got this trip and I can see a pattern emerging: basically, the more English you sound on check-in the more likely you are to get a better room. This only works in areas where English people are not a common occurrence (ie away from the big cities). I think the fact that the new bond film opened here this weekend and is being advertised wall-to-wall helps too (I kid you not, as I typed that another advert for it came onto the television).

My balcony has a quite a nice view:

In this picture you can see the key attractions of Mesquite: A Walmart and a Freeway junction. Apart from that (and a golf course) there’s not much here. Except for casinos. 

The hotel doesn’t have provision for any food that isn’t breakfast so I set out in the evening to find somewhere else to eat. The best bet (according to TripAdvisor) was a restaurant located around two miles away. I use the world ‘restaurant’ in the loosest possible terms as, in Nevada, ‘restaurants’ are essentially casinos with catering facilities. The same can be said of most other amenities too. Airports are casinos with runways, supermarkets are casinos with grocery aisles and schools are (I presume) casinos with lesson plans. I’m pretty certain that if, for whatever reason, I ended up in the ER, I’d be offered the choice of playing a game of two of blackjack prior to going in for emergency surgery. 

When I arrived at the ‘restaurant’, my suspicions were confirmed by the sign outside:

Inside, the ‘restaurant’ was more like a series of glorified bar areas, where the server would walk along one side while everyone sat along the other:

This may seem like a bit of an odd set-up, but if I pan out a bit with the picture you’ll see that the reason for this is that the ‘restaurant’ is, in fact, located along the side of a casino floor:

I had some standard American food to eat (meat, fries and a ridiculously oversized side-salad) and watched the casino floor while I ate. It was all quite depressing really. 

If you go to Las Vegas, the casinos are generally populated with people who are there for a weekend. They’ve come away on holiday from all over the US and go into the casino for a night for a laugh. They take out $100 and will stay until they’ve either spent it all or won something big. It’s usually all quite dramatic and noisy then before they go and have some food, frequent a bar and then go to bed, flying home the next day. 

If you go to any of the other casino resorts in Nevada (like the one I was in tonight) this is not the case. The casino floor is populated with people who you get the distinct impression spend all their free time (and money) there. They don’t seem to take any fun out of what they’re doing – it’s almost like watching humanoid robots who have been programmed to do a small number of repetitive tasks (put in money; pull lever; press buttons; repeat). Their faces are expressionless and illuminated in a plaid blue by the glow of the machine they’re sat at. A fair number of them had a cigarette stub in one hand and an empty beer or wine glass sat next to them. I did wonder if they’d noticed that these other vices needed replenishing or if they were so absorbed by the gambling machine that they wouldn’t even notice if the building burnt down. 

It doesn’t take a genius to deduce that a fair few (probably the majority) of the people you see in these casino resorts are in the grip of a gambling addiction. They come in, sit down and then pour into a machine all the money they’ve just worked a fifty-hour week to earn. They don’t do this out of choice but because they need to. The casino have employees who walk around and occasionally ask the ‘regulars’ if they are ok, need a break, or have gambled enough – but from the conversations I witnessed the casino staff are really just going through the motions. 

The thing that gets me is that the majority of the ‘regulars’ are sat a the fixed-odd slot machines. They have no chance. At least if you’re at the black-jack table or playing the roulette wheel there are ways that you can start to predict what’s going to happen (it’s actually quite clever how people can predict roughly where a ball will land on a roulette wheel bass on spin history and the  person spinning the wheel). But at a slot machine there’s no skill involved at all. You’re playing a fixed-odds game and the odds are stacked against you so that, ultimately, you will loose. The house will always win eventually.

Sitting there having my dinner I almost wanted to run up to some of the regulars at the slot machines, take them outside, turn them around and show them the massive building they’ve been sat inside of for most of their recent lives. “Isn’t it obvious?” I’d say: “The fact that this massive resort even exists is all the proof you need that you’re never going to win this. Go and spend your money somewhere else, on something productive.”

In my mind I like to believe that this would help them see the error of their ways and they would then head off to a better, brighter future. In reality though I know they’d come straight back in. Addiction is a powerful thing and, sadly, is another area where the odds are stacked against them. 

After I finished eating I decided that I was going to give this gambling thing a try. I wandered round the casino floor and watched how the various machines are used. This didn’t help me much as the ‘regulars’ do things at lightening speed. The one commonality seemed to be that all the machines functioned as reverse-cash-machines. With a cash-machine you press some buttons, the machine beeps, and it produces some banknotes for you. With all the casino machines you put the banknotes into it, press some buttons, the machine beeps and *poof*, you’re money’s gone. 

After a fair bit of reconnoissance I decided that I was going to enter the world of gambling on the ‘penny slot’ machines. There were quite a few of these knocking around and I figured that if I used one of those the worst that could happen is I end up pawning out the hire car. I selected a machine that had ‘proper’ moving parts inside of it (I don’t trust the all-digital ones, I think it’d be too easy to tinker with the programme to stacks he odds even more against you ). I tried to figure out what buttons did what:

I put a $1 bill in and suddenly had 100 credits. Not knowing what I was doing I pressed some buttons, the machine beeped, the wheels spun, and I then had 20c less. I thought these were meant to be 1c a go? Ah…1c was the minimum bet and I appeared to have just bet 20c. I pressed some different buttons, the machine beeped again, stuff went round and then – what was this – lights stated flashing! A bell rang and the machine made a happy noise – I had won! And won big! 

I looked at the credit counter: $1.04. I was ahead! 4c ahead! I pressed some other buttons and was about to make the machine go again…. but hesitated.

I was winning. The house was loosing. 

If I went on I knew what would happen: My 4c of profit would become a $1.00 loss. I’d then put another dollar bill in to try again. I’d loose that one too. I’d then go and get change of a ten, and move onto a 25c machine to win my money back quicker. I’d lose the $10, then the remaining $50 I had on me. I’d take up smoking. I’d withdraw some money against the credit card and keep playing to win back my initial loss. Night would become day. I’d miss my flight (or I’d sell the tickets to get some more cash to gamble with). I’d end up in over my head with a maxed-out credit card and a re-mortgaged house. A few weeks down the line I would legally become the property of the Nevada Gaming Commission and would spend the ret of my life walking around a casino asking people if they ‘had gambled enough’.

I moved my hand away from the ‘spin reels repeat bet’ button and instead pushed the ‘cash in’ button. The machine beeped to itself once again and printed me out a voucher:

I headed across the casino floor to the cashiers’ booth to claim my winnings. The lady there didn’t bat an eyelid as she converted my $1.04 into cash. 

I took one last look around and then walked out of the casino, cash in hand. I considered it a victory, no matter how small, against an industry that makes its profit from the addiction of those who can’t afford to be addicted. In my mind, the casino business is as bad as the tobacco industry, the only difference being that the way it poisons people isn’t quite as blatant. 

My gambling career finished as quickly as it began. The house had lost and I had made 4% profit on my money, which is more than you’ll get from any UK bank account at the moment.

I haven’t decided what to spend my 4c on yet, but it won’t be in a slot machine.






Saturday evening: I’m feeling quite insignificant at the moment; quite small. This is because I think I’ve just found something more impressive than the Grand Canyon during the day – the Grand Canyon at night. 

I’d heard things about the night sky in Nevada and Arizona but had never made the effort to drive out to somewhere away from the hotel light pollution. This evening, once the sun had been down for over an hour, I left the hotel and drove the six miles back to the Grand Canyon visitor centre. Using the torch on my phone I walked down one of the trails and then out onto one of the viewing points that juts out into the canyon. 

I turned off the torch. 

Initially I couldn’t see much – the darkness was completely enveloping. But then, slowly, the sky developed from a dark mass into a million points of light. I’ve never seen a sky like it before: The Milky Way stretched all the way across the sky from one side to the other and I could actually see variations in colour in it. The rest of the sky was so populated with stars that it took me almost ten minutes to start to recognise some of the basic constellations – picking the points out from the ‘clutter’. In the whole half-hour I spent freezing myself in the middle of the canyon I think I saw more shooting stars than I’ve seen in my entire life. A few of them streamed across the sky for a number of seconds before flaring and burning up. 

The canyon itself was completely dark, save for a few distant pricks of light that must have been from people camping in the bottom of the canyon overnight. When the wind wasn’t blowing it was completely silent. Completely silent. What surprised me was how much 

light was actually given out by the stars and how well my eyes adapted to it – I didn’t need the torch at all on the walk back to the car. 

Being confronted by that star-field having spent the day driving through some of the most spectacular scenery in North America really puts you in your place. We spend our lives agonising and worrying over things that are, in the grand scheme of things, so insignificant. 

My mind keeps going back to the pioneers who first discovered the American West. It’s not so much the fact that they made it this far, but it’s that, when they were confronted with something like the Grand Canyon, they carried on. Can you imagine what they must have thought when they first came over the brow of a hill and seeing that expanse of nothingness? I wonder if we’d still have that pioneering attitude today; Or would we spend a few days pointing out all the reasons why going on was a bad idea and worrying about everything that might go wrong if we did? 

I think a portable Grand Canyon star-field would be a useful thing. It would be a way to add perspective when you’re sat worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet. I suppose the only problem is that you’d end-up spending all your time staring at it, trying to comprehend just how tiny and insignificant this planet, and everything on it, ultimately is. 

I’m tempted to drive back to the canyon and look again…




The Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon National Park runs for about forty miles along the sides of the widest and most dramatic parts of the canyon. The main road runs parallel to the canyon itself and there are various view points that you can drive up to. I entered the park from the gate by the ‘desert view’ area – the far end from the main visitor centre and, with hindsight, the best place to view the canyon from. 

I paid my entry fee at the gate and made my way down the road to the above viewing point. The speed limit in the park was 45mph (as is the case with most National Parks in the US – it takes a very long time to get through Yellowstone!) and there were numerous small tracks diving down to picnic areas and ‘historic monuments’.

A few days ago in this blog I recalled how it was said that the first time you see the Grand Canyon it leaves you speechless. 

It’s true. 

It doesn’t matter how many pictures you may have seen of it, when you walk up to the edge for the first time it completely takes your breath away. The sheer scale and desolation of it is difficult to comprehend. It doesn’t seem possible that you’re seeing what you’re seeing – it’s almost a ‘does not compute’ moment. I saw some people spontaneously burst into tears when they walked up to it for the first time. The way you approach the canyon means you don’t really see it from the road – which makes the power of the ‘reveal’ all the greater. 

I’m not going to try and describe it anymore here – I simply won’t do it justice. Instead, here are some pictures followed by some facts that might give you an idea of the size of the place:


Let’s imagine for a moment that the river at the base of the canyon is not the Colorado River but is, in fact, the River Thames in its current geographical location. If the Thames were at the base of the canyon then the canyon itself would stretch from the Thames Estuary to Penzance (around 300 miles). The width of the canyon varies quite a bit but is on average ten miles wide. The widest parts can be more than double this distance. For the Thames analogy this means the rim of the canyon for one of the widest sections could sit as far away from the river as the southern section of the M25 does. 

And what about the depth? As we’re in London let’s use The Shard as a comparison. Some of you may have been up to the observation deck on it – it’s pretty high. You can see the whole Greater London area laid out below you. 

If the Thames were the Colorado then, at what height would the visitor centre I went to today be? One Shard? No. 

Two Shards? Nope 

Three? Four? No. No.

Five? Not quite. 

Five-and-a-half Shards high. That’s from the river to the visitor centre on the rim. In some places this is an almost vertical drop down. That’s a very long way. If you dropped a coin off the top it would take eighteen seconds to hit the ground (count them) and would be doing 640kph when it did so. 

There you go then. If the Thames were the Colorado the Grand Canyon would run from Penzance to Herne Bay, be at least half the width of Greater London wide and the surrounding land would be five-and-a-half Shards high. 

If you ever get a chance (ie you’re ever in the American West), make sure you go and visit the Grand Canyon. It should be on everybody’s bucket list and has to be seen to believed. The National Park surrounding it really well-maintained and is packed full of bike and hiking trails – you could easily a spend a day or two exploring all the various viewpoints and another two days just staring and going ‘oooooh’.







Journey to the Canyon

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….


For Corn and Country

Today was very much a logistical day. Because of the unexpected snowfall earlier in the week I had to abandon my plans to go the the Grand Canyon on Wednesday morning and instead headed east. Today was all about getting back to a position that will allow me to go back to the Grand Canyon tomorrow but via a route that will take me slap-bang through the middle of Monument Valley. I’ll stay in a hotel next the canyon tomorrow night and will then have Sunday to head up into Nevada. 

To make this possible I had to drive for over eight hours today. This took me the 440 miles from Oklahoma, back through the north of New Mexico and over Colorado mountains to Durango, where I’ll be staying tonight. Eight hours is quite a long time to drive in one day and I am now quite tired (even for me). I did, however, gain an hour (now in the Mountain Time Zone) although the clocks in my hotel room don’t necessarily agree with this. 

I can split the eight hours of driving today almost exactly in two. The first four hours involved me driving though what-seemed-to-be one continuous corn field. The second four hours consisted of me driving towards, and then over the Rockies. The thing with the Rockies is you first see them from many many miles away. They then loom in the distance for what seems an age before steadily growing until you get the distinct impression you’re about to drive into the side of a very large wall. I think I timed my trip over here just about right. If I’d been a week or two earlier there wouldn’t have been much in the way of snow other than right at the top of the mountains but, if I’d come a week or two later I don’t think I’d be able to do what I did today. A number of the roads I travelled along today will soon become impassible to anyone without chains on their tyres. 

South Colorado is not that densely populated and the roads towards the mountains only serve a few small ‘western-style’ mountain towns. These towns have seen better days but, the backdrop of the Rockies more than makes up for this:

Heading over the Rockies themselves is not something I’d recommend to anyone who suffers from sinus or inner-ear problems. You start at an altitude of around 5000ft and will dot back and forwards to 8500ft a few times before you start the main ascent. This constant change in altitude is very notable and you end up having to constantly pop your ears. A 3500ft change in altitude may not seem like much but bear in mind that you could fit Snowdon in that range. When you transition over the top of the mountains things get even better. The pass I drove up today topped out at just over 10500ft. This is an ascent of 5500ft from your stating position (1000 ft more than Ben Nevis is tall) and a total altitude of three-times the height of Snowdon. The air is notably thinner and you do notice that your breathing rate goes up. 

This ascent also puts quite a large strain on the car – but my Ford Fusion held out today without any problems at all. The only minor issue I did have with the car today was when I accidentally knocked it into manual after about three hours of driving through the corn fields (I wasn’t bored – honest – I was trying to put a CD into the drive at the time). This caused the car to essentially have a blue screen of death movement and shut itself down. The trip computer went off, the engine stalled and it dumped itself into neutral. As I was going along at 60mph at the time this wasn’t particularly welcome and I had to pull into the edge of one of the corn fields to restart the car. 

To give you an idea of what the first four-hours of today were like I took two photos to illustrate the variation in scenery. What you have to  understand is that these two pictures were taken almost two-hundred miles apart:

Two-hundred miles apart. That’s like central London to the Welsh coast. 

I didn’t have much to do either- between these two pictures being taken I only had to turn two corners. 

That was it. 

There were two eighty-mile dead straight roads followed by a fifty-mile dead straight one. Going along these roads I was essentially a passenger. The car is well-balanced so you don’t exactly have to hang on to the steering wheel to keep it on track and with cruise control your feet aren’t doing much either. 

I entertained myself by listening to the local radio stations for the counties I passed through. There isn’t much in the way of national FM radio in the US (all national stations are done through satellite radio) so you have to constantly re-tune into the appropriate local frequency.

Local radio in the US can almost always be put into one of four categories: country music; religion; talk radio or sports. You can have combinations of these categories (i.e. ‘country music about religion’ or ‘talk radio about country music’) but generally won’t find anything else. Occasionally there is a test test of the emergency broadcast system to wake everyone up. (Last time I drove round the states I was, at one point, rudely awakened by a sudden very loud tone over the radio followed by “This is Kansas Civil Defence. This is a test of the emergency broadcast system…”.)

Today most of the local radio stations were in some way related to corn. There was a talk radio programme with local farmers ringing in to talk about the best corn crop for certain areas of the high plains. There was another talk show discussing the fluctuations in corn prices including half-hourly updates on the corn commodity prices on the stock market. There was a religious show which was mostly focussing on ‘God’s gift of the corn harvest’ and memories of associated harvest festivals. There was then a local sports programme talking about bottom-league American football matches, one of which was a match between a local airforce base and, yes, one of the corn ranches. 

I don’t think you should be allowed to become a US citizen unless you’ve had to spend four hours driving through corn while listening to radio programmes about corn. When I stopped for gas the local paper’s headline was about corn and, AND, in the gas station there were two people standing by the till talking about corn. 

The only thing that disappointed me slightly was that I didn’t hear any country music about corn. I did spend a couple of hours listening to a local country music station though and think I managed to identify the key ingredients that every country song has to have: 

If it’s a song by a male artist it will go something like: I was in a bar; I saw a girl; She was out of my league; I went over anyway; I told her about my truck; She was impressed; We went outside and looked at the truck; She was impressed; We got in the truck and drove; We ended up by a lake in the truck; Stuff is implied to have happened; We said goodbye in the morning; I haven’t seen the girl since (but would like to); I still have the truck. 

If it’s a song by a female artist it will go something like: I was in a bar; I saw a guy; He was hot; He came over to me; He had a truck; I liked his eyes; We went outside and looked at the truck; I liked his hair in the moonlight; We got in his truck and drove; We ended up by a lake in the truck; Stuff is implied to have happened; We said goodbye in the morning; He was my one true love; I haven’t seen him since; I’m now sad because of this; I don’t know the current status of his truck.


Now you have to appreciate that country music is a huge business in the US. It’s worth many billions of dollars and is incredibly popular just about everywhere that’s not the east and west coasts. On this basis: by writing the above I have risked life and limb. Country music is a very serious thing and is not in any way to be made light of. I fully expect to have a run in with the Colorado state police shortly after positing this. 

Anyway, tomorrow is going to be an exciting day. I’ll try not to get lost in the desert…

Wish me luck!