Starting the long slog back east

As we planned to leave Moab, we had some big decisions to make.  We had to get Camel to New Jersey by the 22nd April to get her loaded into her container (after being drained of fuel and oil and having her battery disconnected…good grief!).  We really needed the Tentipi to be dry so that it would not rot while being stuck in a container for several weeks. The weather had started to turn horrible and the route back to the east coast was sure to take us through some wet and windy situations. The tent was actually totally dry (yeh!) so we decided that we would do no more camping. We rearranged all our kit and headed out , after admiring this slightly comical looking scorpion; I bet it could still give you a nasty sting! 

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I asked one of the neighbours to record the moment we finally packed the tent away to head on home

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We then headed west on the Interstate 80, covering 1400 miles over five days.  The first day was wonderful as we climbed up through the Rocky Mountains,

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winding our way through fabulous scenery and looking enviously upon ski resorts until we found a cheapish hotel in Silverthorne.  There was even a decent brewery/ restaurant just over the road.  I really needed to renew the data on my iPad, as we would be needing to book all kinds of places to stay over the next couple of weeks, but it became a real headache.  The AT&T place just up from the hotel was closed until ten am, apparently nobody needs to talk to anybody about phones early in the morning (or the guys who run phone shops know a good thing when they see it).  We then stopped at a small town just down the road and their only AT&T place had closed down months ago.  We stopped at another shopping centre where we tried to sign on with another provider, but they charged $40 extra for the privilege.  Blow that for a game of soldiers!  We finally found an AT&T shop, but, after about half an hour it transpired that their computer was down.  Onwards we went and found yet another provider, who would not sell me any data because I was foreign, on to another who could not sell me any because my iPad was outdated  (REALLY, its only a couple of years old) and then onto yet another town where there seemed to be an AT&T shop in the local mall.  Nope, it was over the road, having moved out with all the other phone providers.  We could see the shop, just across the road, but THERE WAS NO WAY TO CROSS THE ROAD BETWEEN TWO LOTS OF SHOPS ON FOOT.  We had to get back into Camel and drive for over a mile to cover the hundred or so yards to them.  We then were greeted by a nice young man, who finally pointed us to another nice young man who finally got me some new data for my iPad.  Good grief, what a palaver!

The next day, however, gave us the shape of things to come.  Long, long straight boring roads through totally flat country that just went on and on and on for ever.  Luckily for me (no driving wimpy woman) Tim was more than happy to drive along listening to music while I read (the first time on the trip, but it did stop me from gouging my eyes out from boredom) (I paid for my pleasure, as I ended up with the most horrendous crick in my neck).  We stopped at a McDonalds for a cup of tea one morning; I was feeling pretty desperate as the hotel didn’t serve tea or even provide hot water to brew my own.  Not only did that McDonalds not serve tea, they refused to give me any hot water either, on the grounds of health and safety.  The woman told me that not a single takeaway establishment in the valley was allowed to serve hot tea.  Of course hot black coffee is so much safer.  Poor Tim, he was cooped up in Camel with a very grumpy tea starved Janet for hours.

After five days of driving, we thought we would take a break, so I managed to find us an Airbnb apartment in Chicago.  We had been given mixed reviews about the city, but, if you listen to people, it seems you will be safe there if you stay on the north side of town.  The apartment was pretty good with tons of space, a decent kitchen and two shower rooms.  The flat is really close to Chicago zoo in Lincoln Park, and so we wandered there, not really having very high expectations because it was free.  Boy, were we surprised.  They have a fabulous primate protection scheme, and we saw very well looked after chimps and (much more exciting) gorillas. 

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They try to keep them in as natural an environment as possible and are involved in serious programs to preserve the species in the wild.  To stand so close to gorillas was amazing and then we were able to watch the silverback learning sign language; he knew to come up for his treat due to a green symbol the keeper showed, but it was his choice to go there.

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The rest of the zoo was excellent and we loved the meerkats, but felt very sad for the pigmy hippo and the few larger animals that they had, as they looked pretty cramped.

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I really wasn’t too certain about the cockroach enclosure

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nor was Tim too happy with the giant spiders (at least he didn’t make me go into the snake house, phew!)

The next day we walked into downtown Chicago, really enjoying the feel of the place. 

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Unlike a lot of cities we have been to, the car didn’t reign supreme (which probably explained the huge traffic jams and stress we experienced driving into the place) and we managed to cross the many roads without  feeling as if someone was about to mow us down on a crossing (made a nice change).  It was, however, blooming cold.  The maximum temperature that day was five degrees C and the wind was howling through the place.  Despite the bright sunshine it was very uncomfortable; don’t let anyone convince you it is called the windy city because of the politicians!  I had been told by several people that the best thing to do was to take an architectural tour on the river, so we found a boat tour and gave it a shot.  At first we cowered down in the nice warm salon, but the tour guide told us that it would be meaningless unless we got out on deck to see the sights. 

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It was very good and most interesting, but we were desperate for it to finish so we could find somewhere nice and warm where we could eat some hot food.  It occurred to me that it was fairly typical of us that we had trouble finding an Irish pub in a place so Irish that they dye the river green on ‘St Paddy’s’ day.  We eventually found a place that would sell us bowl of chilli and nice drinks, which was just as well as I think bits of me were about to fall off.  We walked back along the lake shore, admiring the cycle paths and thinking that it would be a pretty good place to live (in the summer).

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Having had our confidence boosted about Airbnb, I thought it would be good to try some other places, as we were doing very well on the mileage front.  I found a nice sounding place in a small town called Bowling Green, so I booked us a couple of nights there.  It was a bit of an eye opener; I should have paid a bit more attention to the ‘pet friendly’ bit.  The apartment was pretty spacious, but it smelt of wet dog and it felt a bit grubby (I spent the whole time itching from (luckily) imaginary flees.  It cost about the same as our luxurious place in Chicago, but it appeared that the owner had just nipped off to stay at a mate’s house, as he had left a fridge full of his food and he had left his dirty towels in the bathroom.  The bed was so soft that Tim and I ended up shoved together in the middle and I felt like I spent the whole night hauling myself up a cliff face.  Mind you, the town of Bowling Green was very nice and we strolled the mile or so to the centre and had ourselves a very pleasant meal.

The next day I had booked a very nice sounding place called Lackawanna, near Buffalo.  We were greeted by our lovely host, Steve and shown around a most luxurious space (it cost the same as the previous two places!!!!).  There were so many room we actually had problems finding our bedroom a couple of times.  The fridge was full of drinks and tasty treats.  There was delicious homemade cake.  There was a whirlpool bath.  The place was beautifully decorated.  The whole stay would have been outstanding and we would have seen Buffalo, having not stopped there previously on the way through from Niagara, but I ended up with a stomach upset and couldn’t bring myself to go far from the bathroom.  Still, if you have to be unwell, then doing it in luxury with a huge great TV to watch easy-viewing stuff has got to be one of the best ways to do it.  As we left we remonstrated with our hosts that they were undercharging.  They said that they didn’t want to rake people; they are seriously some of the best people we have met!  The Rose Garden at 856 Ridge Road West is probably going to be impossible to beat as a place to stay.

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Our next stop was just off the freeway in a pretty little town called Watson Town in Pennsylvania. 

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The high street was very attractive and we went for a nice little stroll down by the river, where there were a myriad of wildflowers, that slightly assuaged my longing to see the UK in the spring. 

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Back at the hotel, we had an excellent meal and repaired to our windowless and airless room for the night (well, it cost less that fifty dollars), before moving on to our next Airbnb place in Philadelphia.  

  

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Arches (and a Brit invasion) (yeh!)

After Capitol Reef we drove on to Moab, as it was close to Arches National Park.   We again passed wonderful scenery

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and with vistas that could have been imported from the moon (apart from the amazing blue sky, of course) (and the car)

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It was not hard to imagine that these guys were running loose, considering the landscape

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Like a lot of KOAs, the facilities were good and, being at quite a bit lower altitude than the previous stops, it was actually quite warm there.  I do confess that I was finally starting to have my fill of the wonderful scenery around Utah, as hard as that was to imagine when we first started exploring the state, so it was a relief to just sit back and chill for a day.

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On the Sunday, we drove into Arches and it was very beautiful, with lots of, you guessed it, arches. 

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There were fabulous views

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and petrified dunes

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Arches also had some amazing balancing rocks

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and some other interesting formations

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(lion in ancient Egypt?)

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(marshmallow monster?)

These were called the gossips (I would have been offended if I thought they meant women)

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We met a nice couple who managed to persuade Tim that we should have a picture taken together (OK, I lied, it was my idea, because I wanted to be in a picture for a change, just in case anyone thought I had been abducted by aliens)

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Arches had one thing in common with Zion, however; it was absolutely heaving with people.  There were signs everywhere, asking you to keep to the path and not climb on the rocks, but you could see footprints everywhere, showing where people had trampled the delicate soils either side of the trail.  You could see hundreds of people climbing all over the rocks and some people were posing in really dangerous places and encouraging their children to climb up so they could take photos. Tim and I watched with our hearts in our mouths as two small boys climbed up a pretty dangerous rock face, the younger one slipped down so quickly that I thought he would break something. 

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The parents didn’t turn a hair.  They just took photos (both kids survived, so no improvement in the gene pool there then).

Although the National Park experience was a tad underwhelming, we did meet some great people on the campground, including this lovely family who were camping with four boys, who all seemed to play together very nicely (they also had a daughter, but she had stayed back at  home to study)

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We also got to chat to this group of incredibly fit and friendly cyclists over a couple of beers. 

DSCF4822The discussion ranged through everything but hit a bit of a barrier when we got onto ‘intelligent design’.  Tim made a few cogent points and I could see that the son of the guy on the left, who was most keen on the idea, was thrilled with what Tim was saying.  The poor lad sounds like he has a hard time getting his point across at home.

We have travelled for about fifteen thousand miles in the States so far and have hardly met any other Brits camping at all.   Therefore it was pretty shocking to come across two other couples who had actually shipped their cars over from the UK.  Firstly we met Michael and Gina,  who had shipped their beautifully restored Defender over to the Sates and were aiming to explore South America.  They were great fun and we really enjoyed sharing a couple of beers with them. (They had an ex military, left hand drive Defender that should have no problem going south)

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Low and behold, later on the wonderful Welsh John and Amy turned up with their Defender, together with John’s rather shell shocked sister.

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They were a very experienced pair of overlanders and had just managed to drive up through central America despite having a right hand drive car.  Apparently, the boarder guards are much more relaxed about people coming north than heading south.  They had managed to travel extensively in Africa and the middle east before the Arab Spring and had come out in one piece.  At one stage Tim and I thought we might get banned from certain areas as the rain always seemed to follow us.  With John and Amy, it seems that they might get banned because wherever they go, war breaks out shortly afterwards.  John’s sister had met them in Las Vegas and was expecting a nice relaxing break with them, hopefully staying in nice hotels.  Instead she ended up sleeping in a roof tent and being dragged on some fairly challenging walks.  I suspect she will question her brother more carefully before she ever agrees to do anything with him ever again.  (The effect of talking to these two lots of people is that we are actively considering getting a defender to convert into an expedition vehicle, complete with roof tent; Tim is over the moon that I am considering such a thing and I said I would send Gina and Mike hate mail if we get stranded in the desert).

To top that, as we were walking across the campground we came across a Brit who had brought his Triumph Tiger over so that he and his wife can travel all through the Americas.  (In London there is a saying that you wait for ages for a bus and then loads come along at once….)

We were intrigued when two identical small pop up caravans turned up in the pitches next to ours and we thought, at first, the guys in them were brothers.  They had the most amazing mountain trikes and Tim went over to salivate over them (the bikes!).  As we watched them eat pot noodles and the like later on and, as they seemed really nice people, I popped over and asked them for dinner the following evening.  Myron (bless him) turned up with flowers

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and Bill came with lots of pretty good cider.  It turned out that they were just good friends, who had met at a cycling event and who had been let off the leash by they extremely understanding wives and they were having a great time mountain biking in the area.  Both were (or used to be) science teachers and we had a fantastic evening feeding them curry and chewing the cud about a huge range of subjects. 

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It was impressive to listen to Myron and Tim talk about American history and to get Myron’s take on how the present attitudes to gun ownership came about.  He also explained that not all lobbyists are evil; there are so many causes out there that politician sometimes need a little help to get pointed in the right direction.  So yet again, the joy of travelling in the USA turns out to be mainly about the people.

When it came to it, I could not face another long drive past lots of rocks so I persuaded Tim to make our third day in Moab a lazy one.  Heaven….. 

Kodachrome and then on to Capitol Reef

We stayed three nights in the Cannonville KOA, hoping to fully explore Bryce. 

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The second morning was again very cold and snowy so we decided that, as Bryce was still likely to be totally clogged up, we would explore the local National Monument of Grand Staircase, Escalante.  It had such a weird name, it had to be worth investigating.   There was an information centre just down the road, so we headed that way and asked for advice about where we could go and (as it is becoming more obvious that you should ask at ranger stations what to do) where it would be safe to go, what with potential snowstorms and flash floods and all.  The nice lady in the centre suggested we should try the local Kodachrome state park.  (Really? Kodachrome???)  We thought, why not, it only costs eight dollars.  Just now and then you do the right thing; the park was a true , undiscovered gem. 

The scenery was wonderful;

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they have a load of strange geological features that do not exist anywhere else in the world; weird pillars of rock that are formed by lower layers of slightly sludgy rocky forcing up through the higher layers to form pipes and then getting compressed at a later date to form tougher columns than the surrounding rock and after subsequent erosion you end up with

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some a bit ruder-looking than others

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we also hiked the mile or so to a lovely natural arch

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We climbed up to enjoy the view, but the advice to stay ten feet away from the crumbling edges was a bit difficult to follow

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We loved this dogs boots

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the poor old boy is seventeen years old and has arthritis, but still enjoys a good walk now and then.

We drove all around the park and we also enjoyed the ranger station, where we found out that the weird name was adopted after the National Geographic magazine did a report on the place in the fifties and they were so excited about the range of colours in the rocks that they dubbed it Kodachrome, after the new wonder film that can capture colour.  Not long afterwards, a rumour started circulating that Kodak were offended by the name so they changed it (wusses!).  Kodak were in there like a shot saying how they loved the name (what’s not to love about free advertising).   We got chatting to one of the wonderful volunteers that keep the whole park system running.  He suggested that we could try driving along one of the several available cinder tracks to a slot canyon; he was sure that Camel should be able to cope admirably because it didn’t have huge potholes, even though it was pretty steep in places.  After visiting the famous chimney rock, we headed out to find the canyon.  The road wasn’t too bad, although you could see that the whole place would be impassible if it were to rain; the fine dust on the road would have made a slimy and slippery paste that would have made the steep inclines a joke fitting for a game show. 

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We finally found the parking spot for the slot canyon, all the time looking worriedly at the sky as it kept trying to snow.  The place looked nothing much at first but, as we walked further along it, we realised what a special place it was. A tiny stream ran along the bottom of the canyon and so we could skip from side to side without getting wet feet.  It was (here we go again) jaw-droppingly wonderful. 

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I am sure the Narrows in Zion are much taller and more exciting, but we were there on our own and not with hundreds of other people and we absolutely loved it.  We had to tear ourselves away because the thought of getting up and down those steep inclines with snow on them was not in the least appealing.  As it was, Tim used the hill descent control to get past one or two dodgy bits.  You have just got to love Camel; she looks after us very well.  On the way back, I made Tim reverse to get a shot of this venerable old fuel pump

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We were intrigued about the name of the national monument; why Grand Staircase Escalante?  It turns out that the huge area covered by the monument consists of the massive layers of sedimentary rock in successive beautiful colours and they step down from here all the way to the Grand Canyon.  Escalante happened to be a famous explorer (not a Spanish Staircase, as I first thought…must work harder on my Spanish vocab).

As we cooked supper that night in the outdoor kitchen, we were doing fine until the wind started howling through so we huddled by the stove hurriedly reheating and scoffing our grub before running for the Tentipi and the tent heater.

The next morning it was very easy to pack away (as we had left a lot of stuff in the car) and we managed to get up, have porridge (essential as it is so cold), be and off before eleven.  Our next stop was in an hotel, as there didn’t seem to be campsites with electricity near Capitol Reef and the weather was still looking pretty chilly. 

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The drive along route twelve was fabulous.  We had already looked at the first part, which was ok, but not noteworthy. Once we got beyond Escalante town it just got better and better.  We stopped at all the viewpoints and we just had to keep saying ‘wow!!!’ 

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We then headed along the Hogs Back, which might have had wonderful views, but it was very hard to look as each side of the road dropped from the tarmac precipitously.  Then onwards through steep inclines, sharp turns and eventually onto more sensible roads.  After another really beautiful stretch with trees, deer wandering along the road

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and more fabulous views we finally found the Broken Spur hotel (which looked very much like a motel) and were allowed to check in early and to chill over some beer.  We liked the place so much that we booked an extra night.  The hotel actually had a steak house so we wandered along in the evening to try it out.  We were really impressed; it had one of the most interesting menus we had seen in all our North American travels.   The steak was great but the best thing as far as I was concerned was they did extras like mushrooms cooled in sherry. It was wonderful to eat tasty and original food and to drink good wine and we didn’t have to eat burgers.  They did like their westerns

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although this guy looked a bit threatening

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(no,I don’t mean Tim).

The next morning, after an excellent breakfast, we headed out to explore  Capitol Reef.  It turned out to be a very low key National Park, with no entry fee but (yet again) it was a truly impressive place.   Capitol Reef is the site of a massive fold in the earth and the deep and varied layers of rock that surround it are magnificent. 

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As usual it was worth stopping at the various well signposted highlights.  We loved the petroglyphs, ancient rock carvings that are very easy to see with figures which wouldn’t look out of place as rear window stickers that you see all over the place showing who is in the car;

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dad, mum, kids and dog (or in this case a big horned sheep)  While Tim was looking through the provided binoculars, a small boy started being a pest. 

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When Tim jokingly told him off, he started pulling faces at Tim and sticking his tongue out.  His father finally dragged him away just after the brat had actually hit Tim.  No apologies nor even much embarrassment.  I was the only one that told the child off (sometimes it’s good to release your inner teacher…).  When we bumped into the family a bit later, you could see the brat was looking at Tim very hard and wondering if he could have another go, but the parents wisely dragged him off again.  He has got to be the worst behaved child we have come across in all our travels so far.  We wondered if we could leave him here……

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The next stop was about a three mile round hike to see a natural stone bridge, which was worth the slog up the steep cliff to get there

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(note to selves; take water next time, even when it is quite cold).  We bumped into this lovely couple of unreconstructed hippies a couple of times during the day. 

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We had a good giggle talking to them, although I am not sure we should have been teaching them British slang for getting drunk (well one of the sets of petroglyphs did look like a glass of beer and a newt)

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After we had visited the main sites along the road, we decided to explore further, taking the dirt road that goes deep into the park and then loops back on the main road. 

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We enjoyed the hoodoos

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It was spectacular and great fun, although a bit too exciting in places.  To get over the massive ridge the narrow road led through a series of switchbacks, that were steep with very tight turns and a very steep drop off to the side. 

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I couldn’t quite close my eyes, but I didn’t want to look either, so I ended up squinting sideways, all the while holding onto the door handle as if my life depended on it.  (Yep, that would keep me alive if we plunged over the side.)  Tim said it was the worse road he has ever driven up and that the Troll Road in Norway was a doddle by comparison.  We survived, as Camel performed beautifully and then drove back to the hotel on nice, ordinary roads.  When we had discussed the route at the ranger station, the ranger said it was an excellent plan as the roads were fine.  We really should look at the scale of maps more closely because we drove well over a hundred and fifty miles in the round trip.  The weather had continued to be very cold at night and it was a relief to be safe in a nice warm hotel room for a couple of nights.

Zion and Bryce Heaven

We were not sad to Leave Las Vegas, we are not big city fans and it’s a manic place to say the least.  (We realised the next day that we were, for us, unusually grumpy as we turned into our next campsite.)  When we thought about the experience, we realised that we had been given the wrong order more than once; even I can spot the difference between sea bass and cod and potato nachos are nothing like crispy nacho thingies.  Las Vegas is a high pressure place where, unless you like gambling, you do not feel comfortable.  Oh well, at least the room was good value (even if they whack on a whole load of tax).  We drove on towards  our next destination , stopping at a MacDonald’s  in Mesquite for breakfast.  When it came, I was a tad miffed because my egg MacMuffin had nasty sausage stuff in it, but Tim took it away (my hero, sigh!) and I ended up with egg and bread.  (Meh!)  As I was supping on my surprisingly good tea (the only reason that we keep on putting up the profits at MacDonalds is the quality of the tea) I got chatting to a nice old guy who wanted to know how to work the internet (I was busy uploading photos at the time).

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He turned out to be very interesting; he lives for four months in Mesquite, during the winter, during which he takes his trailer out into the local wilderness and traps animals to feed himself, then in the summer months he returns to his christmas tree farm up in Oregon until the trees are put into cold store ready for Christmas and he finds it too cold to remain.  The fact that he looked like Father Christmas (even to himself) we all enjoyed.  It was fascinating to talk to someone that can still live off the land, knowing where to find water in the desert and how to trap animals to eat.  We drove on and found a KOA site about 30 miles from Zion national park.  The site looked unprepossessing and they had a difficult time finding us a pitch (being the Thursday before Easter and all) but in the end they squeezed us on a very small RV pitch and we were fine.  It was interesting to note how our feelings about the site changed.  When we first arrived, it was OK, but as we began to feel better, it was pretty darned good;  beautiful views, clean washrooms and hot showers!!!! YEH!!!.

On Good Friday, our neighbour got chatting to Tim.  They had a large trailer and two tents on their plot, not really surprising as the family had six children. 

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They were most intrigued by the tent so we let the children go in to have a look; we were very careful to make sure they all came out again, although as they streamed out, it gave us the impression of one of those clown cars, where they just keep coming.  The Torgensens were a delightful family who had been hiking around Zion park; the youngest was aged four and she had managed to walk seven miles the previous day. (That puts us to shame then.)  They really liked Camel and the boys enjoyed sitting behind the steering wheel pretending to drive a right hand drive car.

We went to explore Zion, the canyon of which was carved out by the surprisingly small Virgin River.  We passed through the town of Virgin on the way and some of the signs caused a few immature sniggers

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and after crawling for ages in a queue of traffic

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we drove along the main road that goes through the park, for which you have to pay $30 for the privilege, if you don’t have a pass. 

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The route was magnificent and truly beautiful.  I always had the impression that photos from the area had been photoshopped, but the colours are wonderful (I am going to need a thesaurus at the rate we are travelling through the National Parks around here, as I am running out of superlatives).  We even saw a herd of buffalo on the way out

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which was very exciting, even if they were farmed.

There was a scenic drive through the park, but you have to park somewhere and then take one of the free shuttle busses.  As the park was heaving, we thought we would try it on Easter Sunday, when we hoped people might be heading home.  When we got back to the campground we were a tad concerned about the tent next door to us, which had been so badly pitched that it couldn’t cope with Hurricane Valley’s high winds

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There was nobody near it, so we dug out some spare pegs and got it standing again, hopefully in a better state to cope with the local conditions.

After a nicely lazy Saturday, we headed out as early as we could (we tend to wait for the sun to hit the tent, to ensure appendages don’t drop off when we get up and that is about nine am around here) and bought breakfast in a cafe just outside the park.  We then queued to get in on foot and eventually hopped onto on of the jam packed shuttle busses.

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It was a bit frustrating at first because we had to stand and the commentary about all the lovely mountains was wasted as all we could see was the edge of the road.  As the bus started to empty, we were able to sit down and we could finally glimpse the fabulous scenery.  We waited until the final stop and then gradually worked our way back through the park, sometimes taking short hikes and sometimes just gawping at the views.

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We took the mile or so hike to the Narrows, but, as we were both unprepared and unwilling to scrabble through the freezing cold water to see the famous bit where the sides of the canyon nearly meet. (A lot of other people were busy sweating away in waterproof trousers and shoes that they had hired at the entrance to the park; we were hot enough in our normal clothes).  

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We did make it up the short and sharp path to the wonderfully aptly named Weeping Rock, where we got dripped on but really enjoyed the view. 

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I loved the wild flowers, although it was a bit early in the season for many of them to be out.

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It was a beautiful place but I felt a little underwhelmed, mainly due to the fact that we were shepherded around by the bus and there were so many people there.  We met someone in Death Valley who felt that was too crowded, but was nothing compared to Zion.

In the campground we met a lovely couple from El Salvador, who were really entranced with the Tentipi.

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(I’ve never met anyone from El Salvador before!) and then we met Cathy who loved our whole setup.

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 She used to be a teacher and was delightful to talk to and she ended up bringing her lovely husband over for a beer and a chat (they brought the beer, bless them).  He used to be in the forces and they have travelled extensively throughout Europe.  They have not long moved on to a Winnebago and I get the feeling that they miss their tent camping days.

We also met several delightful dogs on the campground, including a genuine bloodhound (who seemed very relaxed and didn’t to want to seek out escaped convicts at all)

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and this wonderfully fluffy pup which was a Native American hunting dog, not a husky. 

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I resisted the temptation to steal it, despite the fact that it was sooooo fluffy and ever so cute.

As we were heading onto another national park, I thought it might be sensible to book ahead, after nearly not finding a spot near Zion.  I phoned the Bryce KOA and was told that yes they had one tent pitch with electricity left and so I booked it straight away, feeling very lucky that the heaving campground could fit us in.  We drove the hundred and forty miles to Cannonville really enjoying the scenery. 

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We passed a train that must have had about a hundred carriages and loads of locomotives

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I chose the slightly shorter route to Bryce that theoretically took only thirty minutes longer than the other alternative, as it looked a bit more interesting than going so far up the freeway.  Knowledge is a powerful thing.  If we had known that that particular route was going to take us quite so high and into such a remote area, would we have chanced it?  At various times over our recent travels, even in temperatures of up to thirty degrees, we have seen several beautiful and distant peaks, covered in snow.  What we never expected to be doing was looking down onto distant snow fields. 

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As we drove up towards the (closed) Cedar Break national monument we watched the temperature drop to minus five degrees centigrade, Tim had to dodge several fallen rocks and it was all a bit stressful.  Add to that I hadn’t had any lunch and it was getting well past one (really important, my lunch, just ask Tim!) and that we realised that we were driving at higher altitudes than any of the ski resorts we have ever visited, passing pretty deep snow at the side of the road, it was a little worrying, to say the least.  What if the diesel gelled?  Would there be anyone to rescue us as there was hardly anyone else about and there was no phone signal?  What if we really did need snow chains?  At last the road started to descend and we hit a main road on which there was eventually an open cafe.  Hot food and hot drinks!

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Pure heaven (I even ate some of the chips, jut goes to show what cold weather will do to you).   After driving towards Bryce through the glorious Red Canyon we drove down into Bryce Valley and onto Cannonville, and our destination.

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 The campground was virtually empty.  Ours was the only tent, but it turned out that there was only one pitch with electricity.  It turned out to be just as well.  The wind was really starting to pick up by then and we asked at reception whether it would be wise to wait for it to calm down.  The answer was a firm no, as the wind was predicted to hit about fifty mph that night.  The pitch was a nice surprise, as it had a generous sand pad and we got the Tentipi up in record time, complete with all the guys on separate pegs and everything strapped down that we could.

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By the time that everything was in place the sun had come out and, despite the cold, we were contemplating our traditional post pitching beer.  All of a sudden the wind really started blowing a hooley, so we hunkered down in Camel for the evening.  It rained on and off and the wind gusted stronger and stronger and we decided the best place to be was in the tent with the heater on.  Huge blasts of wind kept hitting the tent all evening and when a small calm occurred we hightailed it down to the facilities to brush our teeth.  Back in the tent we put on extra layers and huddled under the duvet and extra blankets and put our faith in the tent, as we wondered if the central pole would hold.  Of course it did; if you pitch a Tentipi right, it can cope with winds of up to 85mph.  It just seems like it wants to either take off or collapse.  We did get some sleep as the winds quietened down not too long after we went to bed, but I would love to find out who was talking VERY loudly in a Scandinavian-like language at about four in the morning and then go and play bagpipe music outside their rig one night.

We had been aware it might rain or snow in the night and that it would be very cold, but, after putting the heater on in the morning and seeing the sun hit the tent, it didn’t seem so bad.  Eventually the bladders won out and we unzipped the tent to find snow dropping in from the outside. 

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It was still blooming chilly, but I was ecstatic as it was so beautiful.  We decamped to the excellent open camp kitchen and cooked porridge liberally laced with syrup, feeling very adventurous and brave.  We had camped in the snow!!!  We took pictures and sent boastful comments to loads of our friends, as we felt like true, hard core campers.  We loved the sunshine coming through, along with hot breakfast and drinks, but we were both too wussy to try using the not too well heated showers (the loo seats were bad enough!)(although I didn’t stick).

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The fabulous landscape had been transformed by the mere half inch of snow and we were very excited to go and see Bryce Canyon.   We passed through one of the tiny local  towns

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which seemed to suddenly have a highly ironic name.  A couple of things caught our attention as we drove toward the park entrance.

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We were not disappointed with Bryce Canyon; the snow managed to highlight the amazing stone structures, including the hoodoos (I couldn’t help doing the ‘how do you do that hoodoo that you do so well’, which probably shows my age).

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The names of the structures were pretty prosaic, however,  like Wall Street and these in Hat Shop.

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 We wondered why so many people were leaving so early from the park, but the snow had caused more than half of it to be shut, as they had about five inches of snow and they don’t snowplough in winter during storms.  It didn’t matter, we managed to slither and slide up and down the paths to several of the views over the canyon and we were thrilled with each one.  It is strange to think that we have been to several parks in a row now and you might think that it could all get old, but each one is so gobsmackingly different that it lifts your spirits every time.  Well I hope that is the case, as we aim to go to at least a couple more before we have to slog back to the east coast to get Camel shipped home.

As we had to leave Bryce earlier than expected we took a drive past some fabulous local scenery hoping to find somewhere to get a hot bite to eat as it was so darned cold. 

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There are several small towns along the only local road, but not one had a cafe open, as it is very early in the season.  In the end we returned to the campground for a cup of tea and actually managed to sit out in the sunshine for a couple of hours in comfort.  In the evening we cooked a meal in the open kitchen, where we met a delightful couple of Ozzies, who are currently spending six weeks touring the USA, also camping in a tent.

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I felt a tad put out for a minute (We wanted to be the only ones mad enough to camp in these conditions) but then they said they didn’t have a heater and their tent was only a three season one, as you could not buy a winter tent in Australia.  I then felt in awe for a little bit, until we described how it had been the night before, at which point they said if that happened they would be booking into one of the cabins (I must say I was a bit tempted myself).

From Lake Isabella to Death Valley and on to Sin City

We stayed four nights in Lake Isabella because we had to wait for the tyres to be delivered.  The KOA site there was, at first glance,  a very sad and barren site, but we knew there would be hot showers and on closer inspection there was a bar! (Woo Hoo!) 

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We then realised that the trees on the site were just coming in to leaf and in a couple of weeks the place would look much more inviting.  The decoration about the place was quite quirky, with various old fashioned kitchen equipment and cowboy boots nailed to the fences and there was, yet again, an excellent outdoors cooking facility.  We couldn’t drive anywhere until we had the new tyres, so we spent a couple of days lazing around, cleaning out Camel and fixing stuff.  We even ordered a pizza in the bar, which was a massive 16 inches across and fed us both for lunch and dinner. 

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We had an interesting chat with the guy behind the bar, who was also in charge of cooking, answering the phone, serving in the shop and booking people in.  It turned out that the area used to survive on mining a range of minerals, including uranium ore, but when that ended it became a retirement community.  He said that nowadays a lot of the relatives of the retirees live there, mainly because property was so cheap.  He is married with a young child and, due to him having ADHD and his wife being dyslexic, he is very worried about his child’s prospects at school and was wondering about homeschooling.  I suggested that he might give the schools a chance first and then step in if it all goes pear-shaped. 

On the Monday, we finally got Camel’s new boots, at a cost a bit less than it would have been in the UK.  The tyre place thoughtfully provide some old cinema seats so you can sit back and watch the show.  After a pretty short time the new tyres were on and we were ready to drive around the lake.  In Lake Isabella town there was sign telling people what to do in case the dam ruptured.  When I looked it up on Wikipedia, it turned out that the dam was inadequate to support the reservoir and that the Corp of Engineers would only allow the lake to be kept at a maximum of sixty per cent full. 

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As we drove around, it was painfully obvious that the lake was nowhere near that full.  It was a very pretty drive, but nothing like the town’s webpage would have you believe. 

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When we headed to the bar after supper that evening (ironically to shelter from the threatened rain) the locals told us that they had been experiencing a very long drought, that the snows had not come that winter and so they were really in need of some rain. 

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On top of that, upstream from the lake water was being extracted for irrigation.

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Despite the drought, it was a real pleasure to get out of the desert for a bit and to rest our eyes on some greenery.  The wind was also a bit feisty and Tim, finally, got a chance to fly his kite.

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On Tuesday we said goodbye to Lake Isabella and headed off to Las Vegas, via Death Valley (it seemed apt, as we had been to Hell in Norway).   The hundred and fifty miles to the park took us through some beautiful scenery.

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We decided that we needed a break from desert camping, so it seemed logical to make this particular park experience a day trip.  It was spectacular as we entered the park via two five thousand foot high ridges and then plunged down to the lowest point on the continent.

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We reached nearly two hundred feet below sea level, not quite the two hundred and fiftyish below at the lowest point, but it sure had our ears popping.

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At first the scenery was much like the rest of the Mojave desert we had experienced, but as we reached the middle the terrain was brutal, virtually devoid of any vegetation, although there had been rain recently, which had washed out several roads and there were flowers blooming in even the most desiccated areas.

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The winds were blasting away so strongly I had to struggle to open my door and you could see clouds of dust thickening the air.

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We were pleased to see this orange Discovery two and we ended up following a British Defender, complete with right hand drive and British number plate. 

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We had to find out their story, so we followed them into a rest area (yeh, I know, it was a bit stalkerish)  and met two friendly Americans who had bought the vehicle from a fellow American who had imported it. 

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As it was over twenty five years old, they could use it, as vehicles over that age do not have to conform to current  USA emission standards.  They had driven over a hundred thousand miles over the last few years in the car and were very well set up for wild camping, especially with their pop up roof tent, a very rare sight in the USA.

The beauty of the park was undeniable, but after driving through it for several hours, I was more than happy to leave, as it all became too much.  We could have stayed at the one hotel in the park at Furnace Creek

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which looked quite inviting, but at $600 or so a night, a bit steep.

The road to Las Vegas was long and straight and almost as harsh as Death Valley.   I was a little surprised to see this sign

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as well as this one.

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For once, the warning signs about blown dust became a reality,

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but,luckily for us, only over a fairly short stretch of road.  We stopped for diesel near an Airforce base and were amused to hear revile sounded at four thirty in the afternoon, not a bad knocking off time for the troops.  We had decided to stay in Las Vegas, as it was not a weekend and so the hotel rooms were relatively cheap.  I managed to book a couple of nights at the Palace Station Casino for under a hundred dollars.  It’s a barn of a place, just off the strip with nice little rooms that all border on one of their several swimming pools. 

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The slot machines in the casino go on for ever and there are numerous ways to lose your money, from baccarat to pontoon to one sad roulette table to (even) bingo (although Tim tells me it is unlikely they will say things like ‘two fat ladies, eighty eight’).  They do the usual thing here of providing free drinks if you gamble, provided by women in short, skimpy outfits.  I was a little shocked at the advanced age of some of said ladies and the dresses looked awful on them.  I then looked at the average age of the punters and thought they probably liked the waitresses, even so…..

I did a very brave thing while I was in Las Vegas… I went to get my hair cut.  The little salon in the hotel only charged thirty dollars for a cut, so I thought I would give it a go.  The hairdresser was lovely (and she did a good job!) and we ended up having a long chat.  She told me the story of her dad.  He was conscripted to fight in world war two at a very young age and did not want to go so he shot himself in the foot to get out of it.   The authorities  were not fooled (no surprise there, then as he managed to hit the bit between his toes where it would do the least damage) and they just waited until he got out of hospital and conscripted him anyway.  He was only about twenty but he left a pregnant wife behind him.  While he was in the UK, he met a lovely land girl in a pub, fell in love and married her.  She ended up pregnant but he was scared about having to fight, so he left her and stowed away on a war bride ship back to the USA (apparently having a great time bonking everything in sight, apart from the sailors and the ship’s cat)(or so he claimed).  When he got back to the states he ended up in prison for either going AWOL or accidentally causing his uncle to plunge to his death during a fight, depending on who you listened to in the family.  (It seems that this guy had a very loose grasp of the truth.)  In the meantime, the poor girl in the UK was expecting to come to the USA as a war bride and wrote several times to his mother’s address.  It was his bad luck that his first wife was staying there, so she wrote to the English wife to tell her to give up on the louse.  Unbelievably, the first wife stayed with him, although it looks like he not only committed bigamy with someone else but was conducting an affair with another woman while his wife was at church.  She finally found out and dumped the rat, after giving him a chance to mend his ways, give up the other woman and become a good Christian.  (Fat Chance!)   My hairdresser knew about her half brother as her mother always got them to remember him in their prayers from a very early age.  The boy that was born to the English wife finally found out about his American father when he applied for his first passport and then all the story came out, including the fact that he was adopted by the man he thought was his natural father.  He eventually managed to track down his half sisters and they now see each other regularly.  He even brought his mother over to meet the rest of the family!  Ratbag father married his bit on the side and was with her for many years, but he eventually died miserably in a care home, totally neglected by his wife.  It seems that his karma finally caught up with him.  I was really glad that the hairdresser was so slow in cutting my hair, as I was desperate to hear the end of the story.

On Thursday we went out to buy Tim some cowboy boots, (as he finds them very comfortable and they last for ages) (no, he didn’t buy a hat to match, nor one of those cool coats that the gun slingers used to wear). 

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We managed to find the same place we went to several years back when we were last in Vegas with our kids and friends Pat and Dave and Tim managed to pick up a very nice plain dark brown pair.  I liked this tee shirt

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In the evening we decided we would walk to the Strip to have a bite of supper and a drink, as it was very close to our (economy) hotel.  Of course it WAS very close to us, but there is no way to get across the railway on foot.  We ended up walking along a very seedy road, wishing we had caught a taxi to get us across the bridges.  We didn’t get mugged and we passed an interesting couple of places

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although I can’t say I was the least bit tempted to go and watch the ‘Puppetry of the Penis’. Yuck!

We finally found a crossing and there we were, right in the heart of the strip.  It was flashy and busy and really not our ‘cup of tea’.  We mistakenly thought the food and drink would be cheap, so we went into the Venetian, admiring the canals and mock Italian styling. 

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We finally found a place called The Public House that was nothing like a British pub.  When my mum heard that we were staying in Las Vegas she warned me that we should not spend all our money on gambling, not that we ever gamble.  You don’t need to do that to get broke;  a small ‘hard’ cider and a small white wine cost $25, two and a half times as much as in our hotel!  Blow that, we thought, so we caught a taxi and went back to the Irish bar in our hotel, where Tim supped contentedly on pretty good Guinness.  The taxi driver was very interesting too; she was originally from Ethiopia and had moved to the States seventeen years ago.  As we passed the Trump Hotel, I asked her what she thought of Trump and she said he was mean.  No votes for him there, then.

We made it across America and back into the desert

The route from Mexico to San Diego took us through a huge variety of scenery, including large areas where they use irrigation to grow quite a variety of crops.  I had always wondered why it had been claimed that it required so much water to grow crops like wheat and here you could see why.  In one of the most arid areas on Earth, they are channeling massive quantities of water to grow basics like grass.  There are immense  dairy farms in the area, where normally you need fifty acres per cow.  No wonder the west coast has a chronic water shortage.

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On Friday we headed off towards the KOA near San Diego, which was only a forty minute drive from Pine Valley.  The route was truly beautiful and it must be a much more pleasant area to live in than down near the city.  It is much cooler and the wild flowers and natural greenery are delightful. 

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We were lucky to get a pitch in the campsite, as it was virtually fully booked; we have now hit the month of Spring Break, so finding somewhere to camp could be tricky for a while. That particular campground was excellent with beautifully planted and groomed grounds, clean, well maintained washrooms and the best outdoor cooking faculties we have seen anywhere, including Europe. 

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They have catered properly for tents (that makes a nice change) with a very comfortable wood chip surface and sufficient room for the Tentipi.  They even have a nice little cafe that sells very reasonable food as well as pretty decent local beer and ‘hard’ cider (‘cider’ is apple juice in America).  What was noticeable was that while the campground was full, the other campers were not interested in talking to two stray Brits.  There were a lot of groups there and most of the other campers are not old retired folks like us with time on their hands to chew the fat.  I finally got talking to a really nice couple, two teachers that teach maths in an inner city school.   They were pretty liberal in their views and were very anti gun, as they see how difficult gun culture makes it for their students and the tragedies that ensue from the possession of guns.

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While we were in the area, we went for a cycle along the Sweetwater River to the local marina restaurant, where the salads were very good, if a little pricy.

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We sat and listened to the Mariachi festival across the harbour, amused that EVERY group seemed to play the Mexican Hat Dance and feeling glad that we hadn’t actually had to pay to hear it, as it really started to grate after a while.

On the second day we headed off to try to see the centre of San Diego on the Bromptons, as our travel guide said that it was a great place to cycle.  Nope, the only road into town was pretty scary.  We had to find a post office to pay the next instalment on the car insurance.  This is very annoying as we couldn’t pay with a foreign credit card so we had to get a money order.  We also had to find a place to print off the paying in slip, so we had to track down a library as there didn’t seem to be an internet cafe nearby.  By the time we had sorted that all out we decided to head back to the safety of the campground.

On Tuesday we headed out to Joshua Tree National park.  The route took us through some amazing changes of scenery

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When we booked in at the southern ranger station we realised we were in a race for a tent pitch when we saw the sign that said every campsite north of us was fully booked.  We trudged around the Cottonwood campground feeling more and more despondent as every pitch we could see was tiny.  When we finally managed to pitch the tent, we felt incredibly thirsty due to the desert heat, but I was a little distracted with a guy just over the road from us who seemed to be making apiece of tiny rock art.  It turned out that he was taking a selfie of himself, his bike and his tent.  We got chatting and Bart was probably the most liberal American we had met so far in the USA.  He likes Obama and has voted for him twice, despite his parents initially threatening to totally disinherit him.  (They have since started to vote for the Democrats as well.)  He used to love guns and had a huge collection of weapons, but has since given them all up and feels that tighter gun control would make a lot of sense.

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We saw Bart off the following morning, as he is currently testing his cycle gear with a view to completing a massive cycle ride later in the year

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Joshua Tree National Park is very beautiful and has a range of fascinating scenery that would not look out of place on Star Trek, (well that would be a more accurate statement if there were a few polystyrene boulders around and a guy in a red top about to be eaten by a monster).

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The choila cacti looked like cuddly teddy bears , but the warning signs said it all

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the spines are vicious and almost impossible to remove.

There were wild flowers throughout the park, as it had rained at some stage

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the giant  yucca plants were wonderful

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as were the Joshua trees, which weren’t trees at all ,but plants related to lilies and

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I was thrilled to see some cacti in full bloom.

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The park had pretty varied scenery, as it sits where the Mojave and Sonoran deserts  meet and the views from some of the peaks are fabulous

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I met some Australians there, who had actually heard of Bognor Regis and had one couple had stayed about ten miles from our house.

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There were fantastic rock formations and we particularly liked the aptly named Skull Rock

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there were ancient rock paintings

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some of which have, sadly, been vandalised.  Why would someone be so stupid as to paint over markings that are thousands of years old?

There were several oases and active springs

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which were lovely, if deadly, due to the mining practices in the past.

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Despite being in early March, the temperatures reached up to nearly thirty degrees centigrade (90F) nearly every day, so we were concerned about these young people who seemed to be in trouble at the side of the road

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but as we went back to check on them, it turned out they were filming.   At one trail head we saw that some poor bloke was stuck in the gents toilet, which is not where you want to be in all that heat.  Lots of people were trying to help and some efficient young lady was passing tools under the door to him, but we were relieved (!) to see that he had escaped when we got back an hour later  after our stroll and that a Ranger was fixing the problem.

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There were some animals around and we saw a couple of jack rabbits, some road runners, quite a few different birds and some of these cute little furry things

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which were some kind of chipmunk.  We knew there were snakes around and someone told us they had seen one quite close to our tent.  (That’s when I found out just how quickly I can change out of sandals into shoes.)  We were coming back to the tent in the dark one evening when Tim saw something that concerned him outside the tent.  I was sure it was a snake ands was absolutely terrified.  I sat in the car quietly having hysterics at which point Tim just fell about laughing.  It turned out that my pyjama top had got dragged out of the tent and was half buried in the sand.  I managed to see the funny side the next day, but I hate to think what would happen if I ever really did meet a rattler.

Back at the campground we met Al and his lovely daughter Julia and had a meal with them on our last night.

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Al is a math lecturer in Boston and Julia works for L’Oreal in New York.  It is the first time we have come across a father and daughter camping together and they seemed to be having a great time.  They were a lot of fun and it was the icing of the cake for such a fantastic stop.

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We wanted to find an hotel or a decent campsite before we next stayed in a national park, as they don’t have showers in Joshua Tree and we were beginning to feel a tad grubby.  We were aiming to visit Death Valley, but as it was a weekend all the nearby hotels were extremely expensive, even in Las Vegas.  I managed to find a KOA site a couple of hours from the park at Lake Isabella, so we drove the two hundred and fifty odd miles through some stunning scenery.

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We stopped to buy supplies at a Walmart and we were intrigued to see the display of petitions outside

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When we were just a few miles from the campground one of our tires blew out.  Luckily we were on a quiet road and not the motorway at the time.  Tim managed to get the car safely onto the side of the road and then tried to get the jack under the car to change the wheel.  Due to the shape of the carriageway he could not get the jack to lift the car so Tim went off the find a piece of wood to see if he do something about it.  Just then two cars pulled up and two guys came over to help us.

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They were a father and son and they were wonderful.  The son got his jack out and between them Tim and he managed to change the wheel and get us on our way. We thought the blow out had damaged the tyre at first, but when we got to the campsite and looked at the other wheel, we realised there must have been a problem with the tracking and that the other back tire was a down to the steel reinforcement on the inside as well, despite the tyres having lots of tread left.

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It was a retrospectively terrifying though; we had been on the freeway beside giant trucks and the tires could have blown at any time.  Someone out here was looking out for us and we made it to a really nice tire place in the town of Lake Isabella, just eleven miles up the road to get sorted.  The boss-lady did not have what we wanted right there but her words were something like ‘I hate to give up profit but safety comes first’ so she ordered up the tires we needed from her depot that would be open on Monday and gave us a free second hand tyre to get us to the campground and back.  (There was no way we were going sightseeing on mismatched tires.)  There was a display of tires that hd been replaced over the years.

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 The one with the hoe through the tire we could understand but the one with the live round?

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The owner had driven to get the tire replaced and it could have gone off any time the bullet hit the ground.  I guess we all live on borrowed time sometimes….

A little taste of Mexico

As we drove back to the campsite after visiting Tombstone, we watched the clouds roll around the mountains and made comments about their appearance. 

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It really looked like there was rain, but surely not.  It was the desert after all.  It was rain and when we got back the skies opened and the tent got drenched.  We feared a wet strike but, despite the puddles all around, the tent was fully dry by the time we took it down.

We drove on down the interstate 10 and found a KOA campground at a tiny little place called Salome (motto; where she danced’)(They didn’t  say who!).  It didn’t seem to have a store, my iPad couldn’t get a signal there, the wifi was extremely poor but it did have a nice bar next to it that served fantastic steaks.  I loved the iron sculptures that were being sold nearby, but I thought they might be a bit large to fit inside Camel.

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We were once again in desert country and there are signs up warning us about poisonous snakes being around.  Apparently you should wear boots, carry a stick and stay three feet away from any shrubs.  Oh yes, and you should listen very carefully for the rattling sound.  I must confess that I felt very tempted to just stay in the tent, but I bravely let Tim go first, stamping very hard..  We met Gretchen, a very independent woman, who was currently cycling about sixty or more miles a day to explore the States all on her own.  She said the wind had been so in her favour that particular day that she managed over a hundred miles with very little effort.  She had previously been over to Spain to walk the Camino de Santiago.  She packed her tent up and was on her way the next morning.  She really was an impressive woman.

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The KOA in Salome has a lot of long term residents, who come for the winter and then head off before the temperatures get stupidly high.  They were all very friendly and were very keen to get us involved in the numerous activities that were being organised.  One highlight seemed to be the meatloaf that was being served the following day and we were asked several times if we would be joining them.  

We spent one day driving around the local desert roads,  with the view to driving up to the local solar observatory.  

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It turned out that the track was pretty rough and only suitable for four wheel drive vehicles.  We were tempted but, as it was a twenty mile round trip and we were on our own, not to mention that while Camel’s tyres are still legal they are looking a tad worn, we though we shouldn’t risk getting stuck in the desert. 

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We saw this dust devil work its way right across a field

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and it looked a little worrying, but we ended up driving right through it as it hit the road and it just disappeared.

With minor regrets we headed back to the campsite and a pitcher of beer with delicious steak sandwiches at the bar.  I went for a wander with my camera and one of the regulars pointed me to an RV where they hang out a humming bird feeder.  The owners were more than happy to lend me a chair so I could wait to capture them in comfort.  It was a really magical moment for me. 

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The campsite is mostly extremely bare,

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apart from where they put the tents.  We were right next to an orange tree and scent of the blossom was exquisite. 

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We got chatting to a couple from London, who initially had bought an RV, with a view to shipping it back to the UK.  After various travels with it around the states, they now leave it in Salome and come and spend three months there every year.  They have a quad bike and they go for rides in the desert, as do most people in the site.  Apparently the cacti are starting to bloom and they think the place is really beautiful.  They also thought that our plan to just drive a little way into the Baja peninsula was not the safest, as, although most of the peninsula was pretty safe, the boarder are was not good for individuals in foreign cars.  The latest scam is for someone to drive into your car deliberately and then demand money.  I had also looked at the requirements for car insurance and getting a tourist card, so it was all sounding a tad daunting just to say we had been to Mexico.  They suggested that we should head down to Yuma, where you could just walk across the boarder into Los Algodones and it was all very safe.  Everyone else we talked to said that they went there for their dentistry and medication, as it was so cheap.

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The next morning we drove to Yuma and got there in time for lunch, especially as we had crossed over the state line into California and so we had entered the Pacific time zone, an hour behind Arizona.  There was a large, secure car park, operated by the local Native American tribe where you can park all day for six dollars.  Well worth it, considering the great long trek in the stifling heat that we saw many  people making from the free parking up the road.  Getting into Mexico is dead easy; nobody even checks your passport.  As soon as you get through customs all you can see are masses of dental surgeries, opticians and pharmacies.  Outside each one is a friendly local touting their services.  I explained that I was British, that all British  teeth looked like ours and that we had the National Health Service that paid for everything (OK, I exaggerated there, but it made them give up!)

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The town had been described to us as lovely and full of great things to buy.  I was not in the least tempted by the plastic tortoises and horse sculptures that were for sale, although looking at the people carrying them around, they were a big hit with the Americans.  I loved the metal sculptures, but they were way too big to consider so we bought nothing.  The town was a cross between the souk in Tunisia and the ugly shopping area in Gibraltar.

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  We did find a nice bar for lunch, where I asked to try some genuine Mexican food.  They gave us nachos with two types of salsa (one gringo style, made with tomatoes and one Mexican, made with tomatillos) together with burritos and stuffed green peppers.  It was very pleasant and reasonable at only $28 including a tip and two beers each. 

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I was amused to see the waiter’s name on the bill.  Tim got talking to this friendly Canadian couple about the Revolutionary War/ War of Independence and it was interesting to get a different perspective. 

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There was live music, although the songs were not exactly Mexican, nor was the singer particularly in tune.

We tried walking along one or two of the streets, but it wasn’t really worth going too far, as the whole town seemed to be about shopping. I had to snigger at this advert,

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well I did when I realised what it was advertising….

We headed back to the boarder and then waited in line in the  sweltering heat for about forty tedious minutes to be allowed back into the USA (although, as Tim pointed out, it was the quickest we have ever got into the USA). 

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There were all kinds of vendors selling water and plastic tortoises and horses.  It intrigued me to listen to relatively wealthy Americans haggling with hard up locals over a dollar difference in price.

We watched the Mexican border guards searching the cars going through and were highly relieved that we hadn’t taken Camel with us.  They were extremely thorough and it would have taken ages to go through our gear.

It was still early so we headed off towards San Diego, passing some amazing sand dunes

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as well as wind farms

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and then going up into the Coyote mountains.  The drive up from the plain was long and steep and there were a lot of these on the way up.

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As we neared the top we came across this delightful tower

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which had been partially constructed from the timber that made up the old  wooden desert road and for a small fee you could enjoy the wacky selection of exhibits inside and a fabulous view across the mountains.

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We also were allowed to clamber over the pile of massive boulders that were next door, from which some architect had produced a range of mythical beasts (not Tim, he is neither mythical nor a beast)

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although I preferred the real beastie we met

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We asked the guy selling us the tickets about his neighbour who seemed to have an awful lot of weird stuff

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and were warned that if we talked to him, he would never let us go, as he so wanted some attention.  We took some sneaky photos and headed on west.  It was refreshing to see how green it was becoming and the wild flowers were delightful

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and found a nice little Hotel in a tiny town called Pine Valley, up in the mountains, jus fifty minutes from the coast.  It was much cooler there than down in the city and it is unsurprising that the area is a popular summer retreat.  After so many dry towns, it was treat to find a friendly sports bar with good beer and tasty food. 

I’ve been through the Desert …..(blasted Song, get out of my head!)

We only only spent two nights in Carlsbad, because the town itself had so little to offer and so we decided to notch up some miles on Friday, aiming for a cheap hotel in Lordsburg, another of those tiny towns that only seem to exist to provide somewhere to stop along the interminable interstate 10. 

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The first part of the journey was pretty good, as we drove through the local mountain range but then came another of those plains that abound in Texas and New Mexico.  Tim worked out that we actually went for sixty miles without going around a major bend.   They do, however, really love road runners around here..

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There was a gap of over a hundred and fifty miles between fuel stops and we hardly saw any cafes at all, not even a MacDonald’s…gasp!  We were intrigued that you could buy or rent ten or twenty acre plots of land in the middle of nowhere for a pittance

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and we saw some tiny little dwellings  built on them so far from civilisation, that we wondered how they managed with such basics as plumbing and drinking water.

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We passed some impressive salt flats

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and resisted to see how fast Camel could go over them.

Finally we drove around the outskirts of El Paso, a most uninspiring experience, and then through the very attractive mountain range near by. 

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The interstate actually had a bike lane over the mountains for tough types… (can you imagine allowing cyclists on the M25?)

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We were back into New Mexico after cutting back across the Panhandle of Texas, not that it was too different.  The plains around here play tricks on you, as you can see so far away.  The mountains never seem to get any closer.  I could just imagine how soul destroying it must have been for the people on the wagon trains heading west at a walking pace.  You walk for days and days over the plane, have to scale some pretty challenging mountains and then you have to repeat the same process over over and over and again.

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All along the road there were signs like these

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and it was all to easy to imagine how scary it would be if a dust storm came through, as we saw a dust devil

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When we finally rolled into the Econo-lodge the receptionist asked what brought us to Lordsburg.  When we said we were passing through, she said, yep, like everyone else.  She was not too happy to be living there, she said that her husband had been tricked into taking a job there being told that it was a lively place.  When they got there she was so appalled that she made him promise that they could leave after his six month probation period was up.  That was two loooong years ago, poor lady.  There was a surprisingly good restaurant over the road (dry , of course) that served the best liver and onions I have had in ages.

The next morning, over the complementary ‘cook your own waffle’ breakfast, we got chatting to a nice old farmer from Minnesota who asked if Tim remembered the war and then supposed that we must be in our sixties!  Meh, I have nearly two years before that happens. 

On Saturday we drove on to a campsite near Tucson, a mere hundred and twenty miles along the 10, which was guaranteed to have tent sites (yeh!).  The books available in the camp store were interesting

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We managed to squeeze onto one of the little tent pitches and enjoyed a very pleasant evening.  One guy stopped by in his pickup, intrigued by our Tentipi.  I ended up talking talking to him for ages and I was interested to find out that he had actually voted for Obama twice!  He was a real Anglophile and thought that the country would be run better if it was still part of the UK!  Good grief!  As often is the case, we talked about guns and weapons and he said that, although he didn’t carry a gun, he kept a baseball bat for self defence.  He also pointed out that a penny loafer made a pretty good weapon, because you could put it back on your foot  after you bashed the other guy, so it then became legal thing to carry.  It was great chatting to him, but I was more thrilled to catch a photo of a hawk that was hanging around on a pole soooo close to our pitch

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The wonderful thing about staying near Tucson is that you are close to the Saguaro National Park.  Saguaros are those massive cacti that you see in all the old western movies with the two arms pointing upward.  The joke is that they only grow in much greener areas than places like Death Valley, as they need more water.  And none of them have two arms.  They are, however, simply massive.  They start as seedlings smaller that your fingernail and then over the next hundred and fifty to two hundred years grow up to seventy five feet tall and eight tons in weight.  There used to be many more of them in the park, but there were a couple of cold snaps back in the 1930’s and 60’s.  Nobody could understand why they didn’t grow back until they worked out that the free ranging cattle were trampling the seedlings.  The National Parks Authority have now bought the grazing rights so they can keep the cattle away and so the magnificent cactus forrest is now starting to regenerate.  You have got to love the National Parks Authority for what they are doing, despite how bossy they can be!

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I was thrilled to bits to catch this beauty in the bushes!

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We went for a walk around these rocks where the javelinas like to hang out (pig-like creatures, but NOT pigs, they get upset if you call them that!)

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along with four different species of rattle snake (FOUR!!!!) and hairy scorpions.  Luckily we didn’t see any of them, but I did make Tim  go first. (Sigh, my hero!!)

The next day we decided to go and look at Tombstone, to see if was as tacky as it sounds and it truly was.  The drive there took us through countryside that you can see in any old western.

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We could easily imagine the ‘injuns’ riding over the ridge towards us as we raced to safety or the bad guys riding away from the posse to hide out amongst the rocks.  All we needed was somebody with charisma like John Wayne and we would have a runaway hit.  The town (motto; ‘the town that was too tough to die’) looks like a lot of other towns in the area until you get to the old town, which is full of tourist tat and ‘genuine’ western bars.

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There are about five old bars, each with a full cast of gunslingers in full costume, claiming to tell the true story of the history of the town, including the gunfight at the OK coral which did/didn’t happen on the street outside the local saloon.

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The top place to go is Long Nose Kate’s, which was heaving and had a long queue outside it.  Long Nose Kate was, apparently the girlfriend of Doc Holliday, so it is meant to be truly authentic, but….it’s not exactly very well preserved what with all the TVs in it, but the waitresses do wear period costume. We couldn’t be bothered to wait (probably because I had a pretty full bladder at the time) and so we went for lunch in the OK Cafe (which had such western classics as BLTs and croissant sandwiches) (I was hoping for beans and side meat!) and met a woman from London who spends three months over here every winter.  The buffalo head on the wall made me realise just how large they are

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and it could explain why they are held to be so dangerous.

The old courthouse was the best thing we saw.  It told the story of the town pretty well and had photos of many of the more colourful characters that had lived there.  We found out that it was called Tombstone because the first prospector to make a claim there was warned it would be the death of him because the local Indians were a pretty fierce bunch.  He prospered and so did the town; they managed to extract so much silver that the price per ounce plummeted and a lot of people lost their jobs.  We found out about Cochise, the local Indian chief, who eventually made peace.  There was a guy called English who was a bit of a rogue. His antics included betting that, if it rained on a certain day, he would stand under a drainpipe stark naked.  It rained so he did.  At one stage he was fined twenty five dollars for contempt of court, to which he told the judge that twenty five dollars could not possibly cover the contempt he felt for the court.

We got to sit in a reproduction saddle,

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which was surprisingly comfortable and saw the old courtroom and offices.  Who would know that there are so many different types of barbed wire?

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Considering that the town was only 150 years old and that its glory days hadn’t lasted all that long after the silver mines flooded, due to pump failure, it was an interesting little museum.

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i must confess that I was probably most excited to see some genuine tumbleweed tumbling as we headed out of town.

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From the stars to the depths

On Tuesday we drove off from Big Bend, with mixed feelings.  We loved the place, but the facilities were very basic and, due to the irrigation the whole place was swarming with tiny (non-biting, thank goodness) flies.  It was so bad in the washrooms of an evening, I could hardly make myself get close to the basin to brush my teeth as they were all swarming around the lights.

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We wondered if some people had realised how bad the facilities were

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and if there was any place on earth where a certain brand could not reach

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We headed north west to Fort Davis so that we could visit the McDonald Observatory.  This is the observatory of the university of Texas and it’s sited on top of the Davis Mountains due to the sky being very dark there and light and other pollution being very low.  They hold ‘Star Parties’ three times a week, when for a fee of $12 you can go along and watch the stars.  We managed to get two of the last twelve tickets, which is just as well, because they turned an awful lot of people away.  Why would you drive to such a remote place, without checking that they would actually let you join in?  

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It was well worth the drive.  We turned up early and ate delicious hot roast beef sandwiches and then at seven thirty we were invited to go outside and sit in the auditorium.  We were a bit worried because, despite the day being totally clear, the clouds had come in and we could barely see any stars.  There was a fabulous sunset, mind you. 

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They lit the area with red lamps, because this does not affect your night vision.  A nice young lecturer then came and gave us a talk about the constellations we couldn’t see through all the cloud.  He was not certain whether we would stay outside,or have to go in doors for the wet weather program, but gradually the sky began to clear.  Apparently it takes about forty five minutes for your night vision to fully adapt so that was one reason why he kept us hanging around so long.  We were not allowed to use any device with a screen nor torches, as this would set everyone’s night vision back to square one.  At the end of the time we could see so many stars.  We could see the milky Way and all the old favourites that even a novice like me can spot, such as Orion etc, but the familiar constellations were actually hard to spot because you could see so many stars around them.  Then we went and were allowed to look through some marvellous telescopes, some quite portable, others hugely complicated, with their mirrors several feet apart and some in permanent domes.  The detail we could see was startling.  A smudge in the sky became a constellation of thousands of stars (there are more stars in this cluster than you can see with the naked eye)  We could see detail of one of the clusters in Orion, which included both dark and glowing clouds of gas and dust.  Most exciting of all, we got to see Jupiter together with four of its moons.  We came away on a real high and I suspect we shall be buying a telescope when we get back to the UK.

The next day we headed on up to Carlsbad so that we could visit the caverns.  The route was pretty dull after we had left the Davis Mountains behind. 

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We ended up driving through seemingly endless Texas oilfields.  I had always imagined them to be exciting places with oils spouting up from the ground and huge flares everywhere.  Nope.  The long, straight road felt very unloved as it was strewn with litter nearly the whole way. 

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There were hundreds of ‘nodding donkeys’, peacefully pumping up the black stuff, together with dozens of drilling rigs

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and quite a few (small) flares burning.  The road was full of lorries, all in a rush to get past.  There were only two or three towns in the two hundred or so miles, hardly any cafes, one or two rest stops and so little else that there was actually a sign to tell us that this trash bin was coming up in half a mile.

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There is obviously no love lost between Texas and New Mexico, as demonstrated by the gunshot holes on the state line sign.

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There were more in the ‘Welcome to New Mexico’ sign, but I missed the photo op, due to the shock of seeing so many holes in one poor, little sign.

We eventually got to Carlsbad, where we found a very nice and friendly campground, with clean, if rather tatty, washrooms.  It had lots of room for tents, even if the pitches didn’t have electricity.

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and yet another beautiful sunset,

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which is probably due to the dust blown around by the high winds; we experienced gusts of up to forty miles an hour as we were pitching the Tentipi.

The next day we headed out to the Carlsbad caverns and were pleased to start using our national Parks pass.  The ranger who gave us our tickets for the caverns subjected us to the ‘third degree’ about any other caves we had visited in the last TEN years.  Can you remember what clothes you wore ten years ago?  Or what handbag you had?  He let us through, because we were pretty certain that nothing we had with us had been into a cave before.  They are trying very hard to stop the spread of the white nose bat fungus, which has devastated bat populations throughout Europe and the USA.  I understand that but it would have been helpful if they had put a warning on their website so we could have checked our gear beforehand.  The walk down into the caverns is pretty steep and there are signs all over the place to warn you that you need to be fit and that you might get light headed and weak kneed from the climb back out. 

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The Ranger who checked our tickets gave us stern warnings and instructions not to touch anything, as the grease from your skin can stop stalactites from forming. 

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The route down was very steep, but,as usual, the Parks Authority had made a very good path down into the cavern. 

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It was very hard to see anything in the cavern at first, but then I realised that my Reactolite glasses were still very dark.  (Doh!)  We walked down and down for ages and then we finally ended up in what they call the great room.  It was outstandingly beautiful, with a huge variety of formations, from giant stalactites and stalactites to to stuff that they call popcorn, formed by water oozing out of the walls and evaporating rather than from drips.

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It looked like a fairy grotto and I thought that all it needed was a bit of glitter and a few garden gnomes and it would have been perfect.  Nah.  It was perfect, just as it was.  When you get to the deepest part of the caves, there is a very pleasant cafe selling very good sandwiches, which is just as well as it is about a four hour round trip on foot and you are not allowed to take any food with you to avoid contaminating the caverns.  The caves we were allowed to see are just a minuscule part of the whole system, which goes on for well over a hundred miles and they are finding new caves all the time.  The real mystery is how come the whole hillside has not collapsed.  Usually you take the lift back up to the surface, but it was out of action.  The walk back out of the cave was quite hard work as it is pretty steep and unrelenting, but we took it as a  challenge and both made it back out into the light without stopping. 

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(well I paused to take a photo of this Ranger who was having to fish coins out of the pools despite the notices saying not to do it because it discolours the rocks and causes all kinds of problems.  People can be really stupid sometimes.) Along the way we passed people puffing and panting and swearing to never put themselves through such an ordeal again.  Didn’t they read the signs?  I do hope they get the lifts back in action, because it means that even people in wheelchairs can see some of the best formations.  And there is less likely to be heart attacks on the way up

After we came out of the caves , admiring the view across the plane (complete with a brush fire)

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we drove around the scenic loop,

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along a pretty rough gravel track and Tim enjoyed himself immensely. 

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Camel seemed right at home and we had fond memories of some of the main roads in Iceland.

Into the desert

On Friday we headed off west from San Antonio

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aiming to get to Big Bend National park.  Tim really wanted to see the Rio Grande, and it’s probably the best place to see it.  The drive was, for the most part, extremely dull.  

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although there were a few things that caught our attention on the way

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but you can tell you are bored when you start taking photos of clouds

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(Oh look, an angel!)

Well, it’s not quite as unvaried as northern Sweden, where you get really excited if you see a house, but pretty flat and repetitive.  After a couple of hundred miles, the scenery started to become more interesting.  

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You could just imagine the Apaches lining up along the ridge and we had a sudden urge to circle the wagons, although, how you can do that with one Camel, we were not certain.  It was too far to travel in one hit so we broke the journey in Fort Stockton.  We found a cheap, but surprisingly nice motel and then headed into town to find somewhere to eat.  We ended up at steakhouse, which had very nice food, but no wine.. It turned out that, despite the drive through beer place, the town was dry!  You can not drink a glass of beer or wine with your food at any restaurant, but you can buy beer at the local drive through.  We spent ages trying to work out what this bird was when it was dark.  Was is a chicken or a turkey? It turned out to be a road runner, the local symbol.

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Next morning we headed down to Big Bend  through increasingly arid and empty terrain, finally realising we were in the Chihuahua desert.  

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As we entered the Big Bend National Park, there was a worrying sign saying that all of the campgrounds had been full at four pm the previous day and, as I couldn’t find any other campgrounds near by, it looked as if we might just have to wave at the river and move on.  We pulled up at the National Park Ranger Station, hoping to book a pitch there.  We bought an $80 pass for all National Parks, but the ranger could not assure us that we could find a pitch in any of the campsites- we would have to go to one and chance our luck.  We hightailed down to the Rio Grande Village campground and managed to find a reasonable pitch for the next three nights.  Phew!

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Big Bend national park is right in the middle of the Chihuahua desert and the Rio Grande Village campgrounds are right next to the river.  We pitched the tent and headed off along the trail from the campground with high excitement.  We had seen all those old westerns.  We imagined ourselves on our horses, galloping away from the law to cross the Rio Grande to escape punishment……. When we saw the river, what a shocker. 

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It was pathetic.  It seemed to have less water flowing through than some streams around Bognor.  You can almost touch Mexico and you could easily wade there.  So easily that there are loads of places where you find these Mexican trinkets for sale, with their owners watching from across the river, hoping to gain some US dollars.

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Our walk took us up to a really good overlook and we got chatting to the other people that were wandering about.  Despite the beauty of the scenery, we ended up discussing how awful American beer is. 

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I think Tim is on a mission to improve the beer over here. We met Mark, a professional photographer, who was planning to stay up on the hill and do a time lapse of the Milky Way.  

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He ended up coming back for beer and food and we had a great evening chatting with him. (Oops, someone else we led astray) His wife could not be with him because she had to work, but she is happy for him to go off and take photos as long as they can travel in the summer.  He was delightful, helping me to try and take pictures of the stars.  (I really ought to practice with my camera before I am presented with perfect views of the Milky Way).  The results were the best I have taken so far, so a huge thank you to Mark!

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The time we spent in Big Bend was wonderful.  We have never camped in the desert before and we loved it, despite the stupidly high February temperatures.  It seems that it is usually about 21 degrees centigrade at this time of year, not 32 that we have been experiencing.  We have explored canyons……

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This one was called Santa Elena and the wall on the  the other side was in Mexico (best echo EVER…sorry all those people who were hoping for a nice peaceful walk)  and these people were nearly breaking the law

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(although it is perfectly legal to swim in and float along the river, just not to enter Mexico that way). There was the most fabulous scenery

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(this is a wash, not a dry river and is produced by the intense rain during thunder storms)

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 hot springs

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and the Picos mountains.

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We have seen road runners

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(that didn’t  go ‘Meep Meep’), red tailed kites

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wood peckers,

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and kangaroo mice

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and heard coyotes.  You can (literally) see things more than a hundred miles away in some places and you can see the Milky Way every night.  What you can’t do is have a shower, so we were more than ready to move on after three days ( we weren’t too smelly, as we did wash!) (honest).