Mad Christmas Trip: Part 3 – New Mexico & Arizona. Grand Canyon

After a comparative study of road-side toilets across America (not a bad title for a dissertation of some health safety specialist!…), back to more or less cultural matters.

The second night was spent in one of Route 66’s historic landmarks – a place in New Mexico, called Tucumcari.  The Mother Road goes straight through the town, and nowadays it is one of the few that still clings to life, even though decline and devastation did not pass it by.  Without knowing this, we managed to book a room in the most famous, original 50-es motel with a heart-warming name of “Blue Swallow“.  The Swallow is the only motel on the road that has been continuously in business since 1942, and even has its photo on the Tucumcari‘s Wikipedia page.

“Blue Swallow” motel – our unexpectedly famous digs for the night in Tucumcari

First-hand experience of staying the night there confirmed the nagging suspicion that people last century were shorter, smaller, took much less space and were generally much less fussy about comfort.  Apparently, the architects, planning hotel buildings in places like London or Rome still wholeheartedly believe that since the 50-es nothing has changed either in the size of an average guest, or in their expectations of comfort.  America definitely moved a long way from there.  In both, the sizes of guests (unfortunately) and their expectations…

Breakfast the next morning was eaten in a real 50-es diner, with purely unhealthy items on the menu, red vinyl seats along the bar, and big-Momma waitresses (who back in their day must have been very sexy prom queens), constantly fussing over you, refilling your coffee and worrying whether everything is ok.

Overall, New Mexico was not too bad – not that there was something extraordinary about it, but compared to Oklahoma the weather was warmer, and the scenery brighter – hills and mountains started to appear on the horizon, and the dull steppe gradually turned into a more colorful desert, which even sprouted an occasional cactus here and there.

The third day was also spent on the road.  Compared to an 11-hour drive the previous day, 8 hours this time were a piece of cake.  We drove through New Mexico, and the already mentioned in the “toilet odyssey” Arizona towards the Grand Canyon.  We reached the destination by late evening, in darkness and snow.  Somehow, there was no snow in the whole of Arizona, but here the weather was cold as hell and came in a package with a bloody snowstorm!  Although, come to think of that, the Canyon is located at an elevation of 7,500 miles above sea level (no idea how much that is in kilometers, but must be a lot), so it was only logical that the temperatures dropped.

Welcome to Arizona

Before moving on the Canyon part of the story, we visited a couple of places on the way, that were definitely worth mentioning.  The first was the “folklore-historical” town of Winslow, Arizona.  Everybody, who ever heard about The Eagles, famous not only for their Hotel California, but for a couple other songs, is probably aware of it’s existence.  The song “Take it Easy” clearly points to these geographical coordinates in “standing on the corner in Winslow, Arizona” line.  The song inspired the locals, not too spoiled by world fame, to build the “Standing on the Corner” monument on the mentioned place.  Winslow, an epitome shithole comprised of 1.5 streets, does not have anything else to write home about.  They sure did their best to capitalize on the song lyrics to the fullest, though.

Standing on the corner at Winslow, Arizona

In addition to The Corner, Arizona also has its very own Meteor Crater, which, due to its proximity to the Grand Canyon, often tends to be overlooked.  However, the Crater is definitely worth taking a look at. Not only is it 50,000 years old, but is also the only Meteor Crater, that is privately-owned.  When the numerous excavations after the fall of the meteor did not bring any encouraging results, and no precious minerals were found at the site, the land that the Meteor fell onto was purchased for a convenient price by a local family, who turned the Crater into a business.

The main entrance to the Meteor Crater
The Meteor Crater

When we got to the place, a real snowstorm was in full swing outside.  You could not see shit even at a distance of your own outstretched hand.  Put off by the fact, we decided to at least do a tour of the gift shop, that could easily beat the crater in size.  Turned out, this little detour totally paid off.  While we were circling around the gift shop, the weather changed, and we could finally take in the view of the Crater.  The sightseeing was done in freezing cold wind and snow blowing into our faces, but did not spoil the fun much.

Now – The Canyon.  It sure made an impression.  I suspected it was big.  And it was a childhood dream of an idiot to one day make a personal acquaintance.  Turned out, that reading about it in books, or even looking at photos and seeing the thing with your own eyes were two very different things.

Closing in on the Canyon
The Grand Canyon

In reality, what impressed me the most was not even the size, but other, probably secondary factors.  Like color.  The colors in the Canyon – especially in winter, emphasized by white snow – are absolutely out of this world.  Depending on the time of day the cliffs change from bright carmine (for those who have no idea – it’s a mixture of brick-orange with dark purple [if that description clarifies anything]), to okra-yellow, that almost blends in with the colorless blues of the horizon.  Depending on lighting, the colors and shades are changing on a minute-by-minute basis.

In addition to purely visual impressions, the Canyon has some sort of mesmerizing effect – the longer you look at the full 3-D picture, the more you feel its volume and power, and the more you want to get closer.  Much as I hate camping, trekking and all sorts of other “great outdoors”, but looking down from a 7,500-mile high Canyon brim, I suddenly felt the craving to grab a rucksack, remember my younger days, and climb down to the river to prove my ultimate Universal importance.

The Grand Canyon

On a serious note, though, the Canyon makes an absolutely fantastic and multi-layered impression.  And, regretfully, no photos or videos do it justice, or capture the Canyon‘s true nature.  Many hours after seeing it you suddenly feel the urge to learn topography and study the intricacies of the Canyon‘s relief.  With utter surprise you realize the newly-found interest to geology, river rafting and other unexpected pastimes.

Apart from the beauties of nature, though, Canyon is a business, and the Canyon tourist machine was working non-stop.  Despite the sub-zero temperatures that technically should have scared away the visitors, the tourist conveyor kept on running.  All hotels in the Canyon Village were full, and neither the cold, nor the Christmas holidays scared away the visitors, the majority of whom were clearly out of Asia.  Crowds of inquisitive Chinese and Japanese tourists, as well as hordes of Indians in rental cars with summer tires and LA license plates tirelessly stormed the snowed-under roads of the Canyon’s Southern Rim, and took group photos by the cliffs, mountain ranges and clefts.

As a change of subject – another thing that probably has always been there, somewhere between conscious and sub-conscious, during endless stop-overs at airports, travels through Europe and the Americas, looking out of the taxi window at the multitude of Chinese and Indian restaurants all over the globe.  We are so proud of the fact that back in time we learned to speak a foreign language, can use a knife and fork without embarrassing ourselves too much, and managed to make a home in countries the culture and climate of which are not that different from ours!…  Without undermining the effort, since it really was not all that easy, and some of us assimilated better, where others never would, and probably none of us would ever blend in fully in the new place.  But looking around, you suddenly realize that all this has been just a walk in the park.

And real challenges are faced by those who pack up their whole households and move to a new continent, new climate, new reality with kids, old Grandmas, dogs and shit, without speaking the language, or knowing even a bit about local culture.  And survive!…  They never fully assimilate (or at least don’t do this in the first or even the 2nd generation), but all those quiet Asians and Indians manage to not only survive, but feed their families (in most cases not only the big part they dragged in with them, but an even bigger part that was left behind at home).  And yes, the first generations of immigrants technically sign up for slave work without seeing the light of day, but their children and grandchildren (in cases when parents got lucky and were not deported back to the shithole they managed to trickle into the new motherland from) will have new lives, and better opportunities than their parents.

Although the idea of sacrifice, just like the idea of kids and grand kids does not appeal to me one little bit, such drive and sense of purpose deserve nothing but respect.

Mad Christmas Trip: Part 4 – Rachel & Nevada

To finish with the Canyon part of the story, during the 2nd day of our stay there, I got a chance to take a look at it from a totally different perspective – a helicopter. Somehow, despite numerous airplanes I spent endless hours in, I have managed to reach the advanced age of 38 without a single helicopter experience. My birthday present to myself was to remedy that. And if I were to climb on board something that looked incredibly small, noisy and unsafe, what could be better than to experience it in style – over one of the most mind-blowing and picturesque places in the world?

It worked. The trick is to get a modern helicopter (then it’s not at all noisy, and does not feel so unsafe), and a pilot who knows what he is doing (turns out that even the most modern and advanced helicopters don’t fly well in rain and darkness). The fantastic impressions made by the Canyon were confirmed, and we continued on our way.

The next item on the agenda was the Silver State of Nevada with the self-proclaimed UFO capital of the world, the desert and Las Vegas (the latter was planned to be ignored altogether). As soon as we got down from the Canyon heights, the climate got immediately warmer, the snow almost completely disappeared, and the scenery became more cheerful. At some point in time, seeing the road sign pointing to Los Angeles, we had to fight the almost uncontrollable urge to make a sharp turn in that particular direction and in some 5-6 hours bask in the warm California sun. But true to our intentions, we decided to stick to the original plan, and moved on into the midst of the Nevada desert, listed on all maps and guidebooks as the Mojave Desert. Quite unexpectedly, this very desert became one of the main highlights of the trip.

The Nevada Mojave Desert

Nevada can hardly be considered overpopulated. For the whole duration of our stay in the Silver State (with the exception of a brief drive through Las Vegas), the number of cars and people encountered on the road was minimal (I almost added “the way it should be”, but restrained myself). The desert seemed endless, the road was running to the horizon and beyond, and some seriously tall mountains could be spotted every now and then. Even from afar they looked huge, and judging by the fact that even after driving several hundred miles through the desert we did not seem to get anywhere nearer to them, up close and personal they must be absolutely humongous. But to hell with mountains: the desert – this was the most fascinating thing of all!

Despite the linguistic suggestion of emptiness, the desert was full of stuff – rocks, snow, cacti, cows and lots of other shit. Most of it is free range, meaning that nothing separates the cows and the road from each other. Based on observations, however, the road is mostly used by the cows for toilet needs – they literally get on the road only to shit, and spend the rest of the time peacefully grazing on bleak dry grass and probably cacti (since nothing else could be spotted there) in the desert, in strict observation of the “Don’t shit where you eat” rule.

Besides cows, the desert could also boast tons of rocks of all possible shades and colors – from bright yellow to predominant carmine-red ones. The snow provided a very flattering backdrop to those.

The first item on the agenda was the Extraterrestrial Highway (this, by the way, is the official name of State Road 375) and Rachel.

Welcome to Rachel, Nevada
Rachel, Nevada

As has already been mentioned, the total population of Rachel is 90 humans and X aliens, and the town itself, made up of a handful of run-down double-wides, is barely balancing on the verge between a village and a trailer park. Despite all this, the “Little A’Le’Inn” diner, the main bar in town, is open for extraterrestrial encounters daily, and attracts idiots from all over the world. Even though Rachel can definitely be classified as the ultimate shithole (or, at least, one of them – our planet somehow boasts more shitholes than wonders…) the number and variety of customers at Little A’Le’Inn can beat any cultural capital of the world. Having spent an hour at the bar, we met 2 Germans, a Denver family of five of Dutch descent, a couple of Mormon teenagers in suits with badges identifying them as “elders” (don’t know what the deal is there, but thinking back to the hordes of them on the streets of post-Soviet cities, I assume, it’s a common thing with them), several inevitable Asian tourists with big-lens cameras (the fame of the UFO capital reached the Asian continent as well!), and a dozen other individuals of unidentified race, sex and origin.

The beginning of the Extraterrestrial Highway

When planning the trip, I toyed with an idea of an overnight stay at the Little A’Le’Inn at some point, but having read about “outdoor facilities” and the limited number of rooms, the idea was, luckily, short-lived. Having seen Rachel and its sights first-hand, I did not have a shred of doubt that the decision to not stay there longer than was necessary for a coffee and a drink was the right one. This way, we avoided any first-hand experience with the motel part of the business (probably for the best), but had a chance to enjoy the diner/cafe/bar/whatever. The front yard of the diner located in a run-down double-wide, was decorated with an old truck, towing a flying saucer. The sign on the parking lot was asking UFOs and other means of air and ground transportation to self-park and observe house rules. The graffiti on the diner’s side door happily informed the Universe that the facility welcomed all forms of life.

Little A’Le’Inn

The interior of the 500-something square feet diner was chaos with weak attempts at organization and predominantly alien (of course!) themes. The ceiling above the bar was decorated with one-dollar and other small denomination foreign currency bills with visitors’ autographs (considering the huge amount of those the total worth of “decorations” could easily reach a couple thousand dollars). Rude Republican stickers, plastered all over the bar, were cursing Obama and Clinton, and encouraged the population to stock up on guns (looked like democracy was not overly popular on intergalactic roads). The space between the toilet doors was decorated with three rubber alien dolls, all three with huge sad eyes, and of bright green color. The bar served shitty coffee (America is a great nation, but somehow it completely phased out on coffee – the watery brownish liquid that usually passes for the drink here has nothing whatsoever to do with the real thing), and drinks of varied alcoholic content. They also carried “Alien Wine” – THE most disgusting liquid I had the dubious honor of putting in my mouth, a bottle of which I purchased nonetheless as a souvenir. Can always come in handy for serving to random enemies stumbling onto the premises…

The corner of the diner housed a gift shop, busy selling green alien head coffee mugs, copies of posters prohibiting entry and fly-in into the borders of Area-51, and other artefacts. The place is epic – should definitely be on everybody’s bucket list.

On the way to Rachel, we paid our respects to another landmark widely known in narrow circles – Black Mailbox. To stress the idiocy of the outside world, the mailbox is not at all black, but bright-ass white altogether, wildly decorated with UFO-fans’ autographs, meaningful “X-files” quotes and other inter-galactic memorabilia. The fame part, or why it continues, is not quite clear, for the story of Black Mailbox is quite trivial. The original Black Mailbox was, indeed, black – a standard-issue American mail box, of which there are thousands all over the country. The mailbox belonged (and still does) to the only local farmer Steve Medlin (whole name is still [though barely] visible through all the graffiti).

The Black Mailbox

For Mr. Medlin the main downside of having his farm located near Area-51 was the fact that his mail was regularly stolen by UFO-maniacs. They were 200% sure that the farm was just a cover for various inter-galactic indecencies happening there, and could not wait to be part of those. At some point the farmer got tired of this shit with mail, and his street smarts told him to sell his old (and original) Black Mailbox on eBay to one of the UFO-nutters for nothing less but a thousand American dollars, and weld a thick-leave iron box with a padlock on the pole where the old one used to be.

Mail heists stopped, and the farmer went back to the quiet farmer’s life. Only the UFO-fans, used to camping next to the Mail box, stayed true to form, and continued with the agenda, which with the exception of stealing the mail, went pretty much uninterrupted.

We stopped by the Mail Box early in the morning in the middle of winter, so the place was not too crowded. However, they say that in good weather with clear skies in summer, the nutters are still camping outside, burning fires, trying to spot a random UFO test flight. To each it’s own…

The “Nevada-desert” part of the story is still far from finished, but I will try to stop at the most interesting place, to tease the readers and wet their appetite – the cheap tricks always work…