Just Deserts (Part 6 of n)

14 04 2014

Friday saw us rise with much excitement in Moab. Today, we were driving the 5 or so miles North to the Arches National Park. Along with Antelope Canyon this was to be the highlight of the entire trip. The weather was gorgeous, and despite being a little cool at first, it promised to be a warm, clear day. By just after 9am we had joined the short queue to enter the park. We joined behind a well-used Jeep with lifted suspension and a bumper sticker declaring “Don’t follow me – you won’t make it!”. As we took our turn at the kiosk, the lady asked if we were already pass-holders (the ticket is good for a week). Being informed that we were in fact newbies, she told us that the lady in the Jeep had “paid forward” for the next person to enter the park needing a ticket. What a lovely start to the day this was turning out to be.

We ascended the steep road up into the park, and it was like driving up into heaven. There are allegedly over 2300 documented arches in the park. I think by the time eventually left the park just before dusk, we’d probably seen around 10. Plenty of scope for future visits, to be sure…

But where to begin? There were a couple of “must see” famous arches – Landscape Arch and Delicate Arch – both instantly recognisable when they hove into view. But beyond that?! We studied the map and opted to head for Delicate Arch first, then as far north we could – to Devil’s Garden. There were a few arches we could see there as well as a hiking trail. Then we’d work our way back to the park entrance in the south, going where our fancy should take us. And with that – we were off!

Like Monument Valley, some of the rock formations were described fancifully at best. Some were odd (Double Arch consists of three, for example),and some confusing – Delicate Arch looks way more robust than Landscape Arch.

There is limited parking at the trail-head for Delicate Arch – presumably to help “choke” the crowds and limit the foot traffic up the long slog to the summit. Despite the early-ish hour we were plainly in peak period, and we reluctantly agreed we’d have to come back alter and hopefully get a parking spot later in the day.

At the car-park for Devil’s Garden I was surprised to see a couple of cars and an RV with BC plates. These folk had driven the 2000+km to get here. Respect! The park includes a couple of dirt tracks, but after seeing how red the previously shiny blue rental car had become after Monument Valley, we decided to not chance our arm again. This meant that Tower Arch and the Klondike Bluffs in the NW of the park remained beyond our reach for now.

As we alighted at the parking loop for Devil’s Garden there were signs with dire warnings of dehydration and not wandering from the paths. The sun was still a little shy and it was hard to imagine just how dangerously hot this place could get in the full glare of a summer’s sun. As we set off towards the first couple of arches, we were impressed by the very well-made path. There was absolutely no way one could get lost, but on the other hand one also felt a little like one was walking through a theme park. Not really “in” the environment. We arrived in due course at Pine Tree Arch. This was our first “real” arch, as the earlier Tunnel Arch was definitely of the “meh” variety. PTA was spectacular, and I was quite happy to wait a while for the family who had arrived just before us to take their own enjoyment before I started taking photographs. After waiting almost 15 minutes though, I was starting to think they were perhaps taking the piss. Amazingly, no third party had arrived, but the many offspring of the family refused to play anywhere except right in the centre of the arch, effectively denying me any photo-opp.

Eventually all but one got bored, but the remaining girl flatly refused to leave with the rest of her siblings, and despite us moving in, she remained “in shot” for several more minutes before her mother finally clued in that perhaps their stay had been a little too long. A little further on, and we were at the instantly recognisable Landscape Arch. It looks so fragile and delicate. I can imagine that when the light is just right it would look like it was on fire.

The signs told us that we could hike a little more challenging a route to Double O Arch. The day was young. Why not? We unwittingly then began the circular “Primitive Trail”. Though this is only ~3.5km, it took us well over 2hrs I’d say. Mostly because we were bombarded by the most stunning views imaginable, and I felt the need to photograph each and every nuance. Shortly after we began the hike (by ascending a massive slope of rock), we came across a lady “off trail” sweeping the sand with some dead brushwood. We stopped and stared, not sure how to react to someone so blatantly ignoring the “keep on the path – avoid erosion” messages. It then transpired she was actually a park ranger and was trying to disguise a “social path” that people had been using parallel to the more hard-wearing rock path we were on. By making the alternative less obvious, people were less likely to follow it by mistake.

The route is mostly pretty easy going on hard-wearing rock or packed sand (you were definitely “in” the environment this time!) The route is well marked by small cairns in an attempt to keep the many visitors from straying onto the broader environment and impacting the environment more than necessary. Once or twice though there were some momentously sketchy traverses across steep sandstone rock slabs. In wet weather these would have been downright treacherous. The most impressive views were of the many fins which gave the Devil’s Garden its name. Row upon row of multi-striped rock. Double O Arch is aptly named, and was obviously the destination of many. It was very busy with picnicking parties and foolhardy students actually walking along the top of the arches. A few were leaping from one rock tower to another, trying to impress the attendant girls.

As we looped back south and to the east, we were basically walking through soft sand, and my hiking shoes were getting pretty heavy with all the extra ballast.

Back in the car and we headed back south to try and see Delicate Arch again. This time we were lucky and found a parking place. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it was a more exacting hike up than I had anticipated. Most of the climb is up a single great slab of rock, making it hard to identify the intended route. The very last part of the hike involves contouring around the side of a cliff on a 2m wide path carved into the side. It’s very broad and safe, but I can imagine when it’s crowded… or windy… it could get a little hairy for the faint hearted. Again, Delicate Arch is exactly as one imagines it from the many pictures in public circulation. I didn’t imagine it to be at the far end of a large flat “plaza” though. The way nature had left it whilst removing all the rest of the rock defies imagination. As expected, there were a bunch of yahoos who insisted that they were part of anyone’s photograph of the arch, but thankfully their attention spans were as limited as their intellect and they moved on before too long.

As we descended, I noticed a round rock that had been split such that a neat 1/4 of the relatively spherical rock had come away. Inside, the rock was a pale baby blue, and seemed to be actually made of clay or quite soft rock. This was the first time I’d seen the source of the blue colour used in Navajo sand paintings up close. As we got close to the car-park there was a sign to Wolfe Ranch and some petroglyphs. These disappointingly turned out to depict men on horses and were dated to possibly as recently as the 1850s. Just a little later and they’d have been classified as graffiti. It was an interesting philosophical point though… when is art art, and when is it defacing nature?

By now we were suffering from sensory overload, and only briefly visited Double Arch – neglecting to take a closer look at North/South Windows. The sun was starting to sink, and a whole new set of colours was coming into play. As we drove west back to the main road, we passed Bullwinkle Tower, and saw the two climbers that were ascending as we drove to the east now safely back at the base, retrieving their rope. Balanced Rock is very aptly named and one could imagine a stiff breeze toppling it at any moment. A few shots of stupendous but by now “too much” sights as we steadily drove south, and we felt one last stop at Park Avenue would suffice. So named because the rocks look like a series of skyscrapers, we were more taken by the fanciful head of Tutankhamen on the opposing cliffs.

By the time we left the park we were exhausted. We headed back to change then straight out for a lavish steak dinner at Jeffrey’s Steakhouse. I would definitely recommend this place. Book ahead though… we were exceedingly lucky to get a table because of a no show. Subsequent drop-ins were politely turned away. Saturday was to be our last full day… but it would be spent putting a lot of miles on the clock as we headed back towards Las Vegas. But I’m getting ahead of myself for now.

To be continued…

 





Just Deserts (Part 5 of n)

12 04 2014

It’s tax season! And we all know what that means, right? Yup… find any excuse possible to avoid knuckling down and getting on with it.

I just spent a couple of hours in the garden (way harder than just getting on with the tax forms, but logic is not a factor here). The mower fired into life at the second pull – a minor miracle all in itself.

I take what might be called a minimalist approach to my garden. Three mows a year on average. Once when the daffodils I planted in the lawn have finished flowering (they’ve been annoyingly coming up “blind” for the last few years just to spite me); once towards the end of the spring rains because the grass frustratingly seems to like that, and insists on growing – and therefore needing to be cut; and finally once towards the autumn because then it looks reasonable over winter. Our summers are largely dry, and by accepting an “au naturel” yellow/brown lawn, I avoid it growing and therefore needing cutting. If anyone asks, I say it’s a water conservation measure. We’re metered, so it’s not entirely untrue.

Now the back lawn is cut though (the daffodils, though blind, are not yet over in the front lawn), I need a new excuse to avoid my taxes. So – I thought I’d tell you a bit about our next desert adventure. There’s a bit of a side-story regarding “the van”, but I’ll save that until another post.

The day after we had our minds blown by Antelope Canyon, we left Page en route for Moab, Utah. This caused no end of amusement with time. We’d moved from Pacific (Nevada) to Mountain (Arizona) time… but Arizona doesn’t “do” daylight saying, so we hadn’t actually changed the clocks. As we moved North to Utah though, we would advance the hour necessary to be in Mountain Time because Utah was much more conventional. But there was a twist… we were heading first to Monument Valley, which is a Navajo region and spans the AZ/UT border, and collectively does recognise daylight saving. As in “Hey – have we met? Aren’t you daylight saving?” The entrance road to the valley is in Utah, but the road heads SE back into Arizona… or would except it’s Navajo land. So – although the visitor centre is in Arizona, it’s Navajo land, so has the same time as Utah because of daylight saving. Following?

The day began with an unusual shower though. I’m no stranger to business travel. I’ve been to every continent except Antarctica. Stayed in all manner of hotels. Never though, in my entire life, have I ever encountered a shower with TWO heads. The reason defies me. Perhaps Janus was a frequent visitor in earlier times…

Breakfast was noteworthy too. I ambled into the buffet area to gather my usual holiday fare of scrambled eggs and dubious meat. Out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of a child dropping something from her plate. She moved to pick it up, and her mother yelped, telling her it was dirty now, and to leave it alone. The girl was nearer 14 than 3. As I moved closer I saw it was in fact an individual pack of tomato ketchup – still sealed. As I considered my own immune system to be capable of handling the situation I stooped and threw it in the nearby waste bin. I was then given what is referred to in North America as “stink eye” by the aforementioned mother.

It was another bright but crisp morning. 7°C as reported by out trusty steed’s temperature gauge. As we headed east, back towards Antelope Canyon, I remembered to take a photo of the thee chimneys of the NGS. This had been mysteriously marked on the map with just those three letters, but turned out to be a coal-fired power station – the Navajo Generating Station. Built originally in the 1970s it has been regularly upgraded to maintain the highest levels of air quality. Having been brought up in Yorkshire, I was well used to seeing the grey discharge from coal-fired power stations such as Ferrybridge. This was nothing like it, with what appeared to be pure steam being discharged and quickly dissipating into the otherwise crystal clear skies. The only puzzle was why it was needed… so close to the hydro dam at Page.

The road to Monument Valley – literally straddling the Utah border – was unbelievably quiet, and we were there by noon. The visitor centre is raised above the valley, and the initial view is just jaw-dropping. We felt the need for a nice cup of tea before we embarked on the adventure “proper”, so went into the centre. I was a bit disappointed by all the usual tat being sold. To me it actually devalued rather than celebrated the rich Navajo culture. I was however surprised when I asked for tea. I was asked whether I wanted “regular” or “Navajo” tea. Having been given the opportunity, I didn’t hesitate to ask for the Navajo version. It was not unpleasant. More of a minty/herby taste. Refreshing for sure. Turns out it’s actually made from greenthread leaves, found locally. Nothing else added.

From the car-park you can see some of the “classic” buttes of Monument Valley – The Mittens are instantly recognisable for example, as is Merrick’s Butte – an almost cubic formation. After a lengthy debate and some analysis of the types of cars entering the valley (and the condition of the ones exiting), we decided we’d take our very unremarkable Ford Focus on the 17 mile dusty track through the valley. Very glad we did – it was spectacular. No doubt it would have been more comfortable – and potential safer – in our own Honda Pilot, but that was a few thousand kilometres north in BC at the time! Mrs E was driving and managed to avoid the worst of the potholes and mini-cliffs along the dirt road. We didn’t bottom out once, and the sump is as good as the day we picked up the car. It’s fair to say though that it was a little dustier when we returned it to Budget a few days later…

We were armed with the free map of the valley which unfortunately only named the more imposing features. Some of them had names that were definitely a stretch. Camel Butte for example was a definite “squint at it just right…” example, whereas “Elephant Butte” was a little more aptly named. We probably spent about 4 hours there altogether. The time flew!

Once we were back on our way to Moab, we passed Mexican Hat which is a small town straddling a deep gorge. It’s named after a balancing rock that does in fact look not unlike a sombrero. We were a few days into our desert trip now, but no less in awe of the continual changes in the landscape. A constantly changing palette of yellows and reds met our eyes both in soils and rock. As we got north to Monticello, we passed Church Rock which looked like nothing so much as a blancmange. I was so intent on getting a decent shot of it as we sailed past on the road that I completely missed the fact that on the west side of the road was Newspaper Rock State Historic Monument - a site of incredible petroglyphs.

We were definitely getting weary as we came into Moab – our destination for the night. We knew nothing about the place, and entering from the South we all initially had the definite impression it was “sketchy”. A long drawn out line of semi-industrial units, car repair shops and less than salubrious motels. We were crossing our fingers that our home for the next couple of nights would not be nearby. Luckily it was actually right through town and on the northern side. Downtown Moab is actually quite reasonable, but you could tell it depended almost entirely on the transient climbers, kayakers, mountain bikers and assorted other thrill seekers. This also explained why the rooms were disproportionately expensive compared to our other stays. Once settled in, we headed into town to forage. I couldn’t help but snigger at “Eddie McStiff’s” which reminded me of a bar my eldest daughter sometimes frequents in Toronto – Philthy McNasty’s.

In the end, we settled on Twisted Sistas’ Cafe where we were well fed and enjoyed a very pleasant evening before turning in… ready for the jewel in the crown. The last desert experience of the trip.

To be continued…

 

 





Just Deserts (Part 4 of n)

6 04 2014

Wednesday morning, and I was really looking forward to to-day’s desert experience.

We’d booked a trip to visit Antelope Canyon. It’s on the local Navajo land near Page, and one can only visit as part of an organised tour. The prices vary throughout the day, as at noon the bright sun shines directly down through the “slot canyon” and produces absolutely stunning effects. We’d been reliably informed though that because it wasn’t quite Spring yet, the light wouldn’t in fact hit the canyon directly, and it wasn’t worth the extra money. There are a handful of tour operators and we picked Antelope Canyon Tours.

My own strategic thinking also figured that if we took the first possible trip at 8am, the chances were higher that we’d get less people on our session, and therefore more chance of getting better shots of what I expected to be amazing views. This strategy worked out wonderfully. An early breakfast (more dodgy scrambled eggs and spicy sausages), and we were picked up promptly by Rick from the tour company. They had these light trucks with covered benches in the back. It was still pretty crisp in the morning, and I was glad I’d brought along a wind-proof coat as we headed back to their office to pick up another couple of visitors – from Sedona.

Photo: Antelope Canyon Tours – One of their truck fleet

At the allotted time, we were off. A couple of miles East of town we reached the site, and the gate was opened for us – the first tour of the day. We’d sped along the open roads at quite a lick, and it was pretty windy in the back. As we left the road though into the Navajo park, we had a few kilometres to go on a broad sandy dried up river bed. By the time we reached the slot canyon I was quite sure my teeth were all loose.

Rick our guide later told us that they experience around 20 flash floods a year, and that people have even died when caught out in the open when the waters hit. It was hard to imagine this river flowing with water, but obviously it did – when the mood took it.

We eventually arrived at a very unassuming slit in a cliff, and Rick told us how it had been discovered in the 20′s when a young Navajo girl tending her sheep had come across it. A few metres inside, and Rick told us to face back to the opening where we were met by one of the “classic” views of Antelope Canyon – The Flame. It was breathtaking.

And over the next couple of hundred metres, it just got better and better. We didn’t need to share the views with anyone, and the small group – 5 of us plus Rick – seemed appropriate for the serenity of the place.

Eventually we popped out at the other end of the canyon, and Rick spent a couple of minutes chatting about the canyon in general. I really took a liking to him with his calm, measured way of speaking and great knowledge of the area. As we retraced our steps though, I was horrified to find the entire canyon now full of groups of tourists. Each was at a different stage in a facsimile of the tour we’d just had, separated by a few metres from each other. It seemed so much less in keeping with our own experience, and I was so very pleased we’d taken the early morning trip.

Despite only being out for an hour or so, I felt like a lifetime had passed by the time we re-boarded and were returned to our hotel. It wasn’t a cheap trip – around $35 each for the early morning tour, but it was worth every penny. We regrouped, packed a few nibbles, and headed off to the tourist information place to learn what else we could do that day. We were offered a tour of the hydro dam, but frankly once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all… and I’ve seen a few in my time! We were offered Horseshoe Bend – seen it. Antelope Canyon – seen it. I felt like a cheesy tourist, but couldn’t believe that in such a beautiful environment there wasn’t more to be seen – in a controlled, environmentally sensitive way. Sure, we could hack off into the hills, but I had a sneaky suspicion that not many people returned from such brash adventures! In the end, the lady suggested “The Chains”, which turned out to be a pleasant walk near the dam, and along an escarpment. We spent a very pleasant couple of hours down there and spotted a couple of lizards along the way too.

To be continued…





Just Deserts (Part 3 of n)

2 04 2014

Monday night, we were buzzing from our Grand Canyon experience. We popped into Safeway and bought some wraps and lettuce and other stuff for a light meal. It sounds frugal, but to be honest it was as much because we really didn’t fancy many of the restaurant options. Mrs E tried to get me to go to the Singing Pig, but frankly it looked far too shady, despite the apparently positive online reviews.

Tuesday began with a  relaxed breakfast – more of the same old weird scrambled eggs and spicy sausage that seem mandatory in a certain type of hotel – and we were back on the road, heading for Flagstaff. Unfortunately we then missed the turn North for Page, but some ingenious “car-park cutting through” from Mrs E and we were back on the right road. We did briefly take the suddenly presented opportunity to stock up on fizzy water and some random comestibles (she was unwise enough to take third-born with her into the shop…) before heading North, but it was an uneventful drive into Page, passing through some remarkable scenery. The soil gradually turned red, and we were definitely in sandstone country…

Once we arrived, we asked Gladys* to help us get to the hotel, and we took what we called “Church Crescent” (S. Lake Powell Blvd) to the hotel. Seriously, for a town the size of Page, it had an unbelievable array of subtly different church denominations all within a block or two.

Churches in Page, AZ

Churches in Page, AZ

It was mid afternoon, and I went for a stroll around the environs. There was a clear view of the dam and bridge (though we never actually got to visit either as things would turn out), and the temperature was quite pleasant. On returning to the hotel, I got directions for the famous Horseshoe Bend, and we set off in search of it. This time Gladys led us completely astray, as Horseshoe Bend Rd. turned out to in fact just be the access road to Walmart! The actual turn-off was just a kilometre further on, with free parking. It was a short hike to the river, and truly spectacular views. The trail was my first realisation that “leave no trace” seemed to not be well understood in these parts, and the incredibly fragile desert biosphere was happily trampled on by marauding tourists walking extremely wide of the clear and well-marked path. It’s one thing to walk on relatively hard-wearing and forgiving rock, but this delicate sand was home to many fragile plants and animals. The path was intended to limit the scope of the damage caused by foot traffic, and it was a little sad to see how readily people felt the need to cut a corner or trample a sage bush.

The strong sunlight made it unexpectedly hard to get a good photo, as the flare was quite insistent, but the fresh air gave us an appetite, and we had a lovely dinner at The Dam Bar & Grille. The local beer was a little too hoppy for my taste, but it was a very pleasant evening nonetheless. Son of E had a giant 1lb burger, and to his credit ate all the chips they felt it needed to be accompanied by.

The Dam Big Burger

The Dam Big Burger

 

To be continued…


 

*Gladys/GLaDOS is the name of the belligerent all-seeing computer in Portal, a problem-solving video game much loved by son. It became the nom to plume of the GPS application running on my BlackBerry, which has this curious mixture of plummy Queen’s English (“In approximately 1km, turn left on…”) and brash American (“10th Avenoo”). She was bearable for only short stints when we really needed it.

Wikipedia: GlaDOS





Just Deserts (Part 2 of n)

30 03 2014

Monday

So – Monday in Williams, AZ. It was St. Patrick’s day, so there was an irritating amount of green being worn. Maybe if 23rd April was as well celebrated in the Americas I’d be less grumpy. (That’s St. George’s day, if you didn’t know… patron saint of  herpetologists ;) ).

Williams is tiny, but still has the standard US grid system… and a train line. And the train goes once a day… to the GRAND CANYON!

Fair dues… there’s not a lot going for the town of Williams, but what it has it makes the most of. It even has a one way road system, to force you to drive on as many of its tiny selection of roads as possible. I suppose it evens out the wear on the tarmac or something.

We woke up bright and early and headed for the hotel to catch the train. We’d pre-booked and it was a good job. Not quite in the Indian railway’s league, but pretty full, all the same.

Image: The Indian Express (sic)

Once we’d collected our boarding tickets, we headed off to the bleachers for some slapstick cowboy fun before boarding the train. It was a bit forced, but the kids in the crowd seemed to enjoy it, and who am I to say how “entertainment” should be defined?

The train ride was over 2 hours each way, and passed through some amazing changes of scenery. The start took us through a patch of ground colonised by prairie dogs which were energetic in the morning sun, despite the cool temperatures. Each carriage had a couple of stewarding staff. Ours was an elderly guy called Joe – who I swear sounded like a retired Elvis impersonator – and a young lady with far too many teeth and a fanatical desire to smile continuously. At least we’d be fine if the lights went out…

Part of the deal was a musical interlude provided by a live musician. I’ve definitely heard worse, but it was a bit surreal.

It was hard to believe that over two hours had passed when we arrived at the Grand Canyon. A complicated triangle was negotiated to allow the train to basically do a three point turn ready for the trip back later in the afternoon. And we were off… three hours to “do” the GC. Nowhere nearly long enough obviously. This could only ever be a small taste of the real experience. The toothy stewardess was trying to suggest restaurants and shuttle bus rides, which I guess was the typical experience for most of her customers. What a waste! You only had 3 hours… why on Earth would you waste it in a restaurant or a bus?!

Nope, we were off over the tracks, up the steps and drooling over the view in mere moments! A quick packed lunch (which the local squirrels tried to steal), and we headed off down the hole, via the Bright Angel trail… Obviously we weren’t going to get anywhere near the bottom in the short time we had, but we had a very pleasant walk down the well maintained path, and got some spectacular views – particularly of the Battleship formation. My overarching impression is that it was so bloody vast that it just didn’t seem real! Weird… it was almost disappointing. It is so familiar from photos and films, that when you see it for real, it feels more like a theatre backdrop. I remember a similar feeling when I saw many famous impressionist art works in the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay. It was hard to muster the appropriate emotion.

After our sweaty return from the canyon, we just had time to walk a little along the top where there’s an informative display of the various geological eras exposed in the canyon, then it was time to get back on board the train for our return trip back down to Williams. We were in the same seats, so got to see the other side of the tracks on the way back. We set off slowly until we left the National Park perimeter, then the train picked up speed and we were regaled with more music. This time from a native Navajo called Clarence Clearwater. He took the opportunity to put a plug in for the Navajo-run sky walk at the West of the canyon that hadn’t been forced to close due to the recent Federal funding crisis… unlike the South Rim. The trip back seemed a lot faster, but I became fascinated by the telegraph lines that had fallen into disrepair. Some stretches were still fully wired, but others had just air to pass the now non-existent telegraph messages through. Then suddenly we slowed a little and saw the fearsome gang from the morning by the side of the tracks. We were boarded, and ever so politely asked if we’d like to donate to their retirement funds… all in very good nature and much fun for the youngsters in the party. Or even the teenagers!

To be continued…





Just Deserts (Part 1 of n)

29 03 2014

I spent my formative years in a small town in Yorkshire. In the North of England. It wasn’t a particularly remarkable childhood. No lurid skeletons in my family closet or anything of that nature.

One of the things that typified an upbringing in these relatively quiet backwaters in the 70′s was an expectation that this was pretty much “it”. It’s not that my school friends were in-bred or anything, but 40 odd years later, let’s just say many of them still have the same post-code! My grand-parents lived a whole 45 miles away in a coal mining town called South Elmsall, where both my parents were raised and met. My father became a policeman and was posted a galaxy away to Silsden… 45 miles West.

As a growing child I remember that a visit to my grandparents was a weekend affair. It took an hour and 20 minutes to drive the 45 miles, and there was no way one could contemplate the return trip on the same day! As I’ve grown older I’ve never really understood that barrier. Plainly roads and cars were a lot less capable than today, but I think it was more a mental obstacle.

So, there I was growing up no more malcontent than any other male youth in human history, and fully expecting to die within spitting distance of where I grew up, when two separate things happened. Firstly, an elderly lady (she must have been at least my age now!) that my mother used to keep an eye on went to visit her daughter in “Beautiful British Columbia”. I vaguely recall the daughter lived in Victoria on the Island, but I might be wrong. Anyway, this dear old lady (Mrs Berry was her name) knew I was a bit of a nerd, and on her return presented me with a huge armful of travel brochures and mementos of her trip. There were train brochures from the coast-to-coast trip she’d taken, photos of Niagara, and endless photos of the greenest trees I had ever seen. I was sold. Before I died I was DEFINITELY going to visit Canada.

I’m sure it’s no surprise that I have been an avid book reader since I figured out how to stop my lips moving. Another aspect of my willingness to consider broader horizons was that I earnt a scholarship to the “local” grammar school. It was a whole 15 miles away in Bradford, and my erstwhile schoolmates couldn’t believe I was going to catch 4 buses a day and spend 3 hours getting to and from school when the local comprehensive was just down the road. But that was 3 very useful hours. Many a French (or Latin) vocab. test was passed because it had been studied in the last 30 minutes of a bus ride and was still fresh as I wrote the test. And many a book was consumed on the back seat of a West Yorkshire Traction double-decker.

One such book was “Running Blind” by Desmond Bagley. This was the usual action book in the Hammond Innes, Jack Higgins, Alastair McLean mould. But it had a profound effect on me. It was set in Iceland, and the descriptions blew me away. I decided there and then that Iceland too would need to feel the tread of my step before I finally popped my clogs.

So there you have it. Two different but influential experiences on a growing lad that made me think that perhaps there was something more life could offer than even the grandest county in the land. Fast forward a year or two. Or 40. And I have visited every continent except Antarctica. I now live in BC, and have met some amazing people and shared some amazing experiences. Some uncomfortable, wet and very cold, though no less wonderful for all that. And this year I will turn 50. What more perfect an occasion to finally visit Iceland?

OK – so things don’t always work out the way we hope, and we actually spent a week of Spring Break visiting the States. I had a list of deserts I’d like to photograph, and we set off to bag as many as we could.

Desert Trip Route

Desert Trip Route

Meh – Iceland, Arizona… we were all equal in the end (Pink Floyd – Two Suns in the Sunset, Final Cut… don’t listen to it if you’re a manic depressive, despite its awesomeness).

Saturday

We had decided to fly out of Bellingham on Allegiant. Cheap and not very cheerful. Mr & Mrs Elephant were accompanied by our youngest since we figured it was safer than leaving a 15 year old lad alone in the house for a week! The obliging parents of his girlfriend even offered to look after our devil-dog, so it all looked set for a relaxing week. Allegiant nickel and dime you for everything, so we opted to travel light and the three of us shared a single suitcase (they charge for carry-on too: $50!), and we pre-paid online to get a cheaper deal on the one case. Parking was easy, check-in smooth, and though we had had to allow plenty of time in case of issues driving across the border, we boarded the plane with no incident (except for an elderly gentleman’s cap being blown off as he climbed the exposed ramp to the plane).

The flight was short, uneventful (always a good thing where flying is concerned) and the air reasonably clear. I’m often fascinated by the sights I see from an aeroplane and struggle afterwards to identify where they were. The artificially irrigated farms with their circular fields are always amusing, and I’m not sure if the snow-covered mountain was Mt. Rainier in Washington.

As soon as we arrived in Las Vegas I felt like I needed a shower. I don’t know what it is about that place, but it instantly makes me feel grubby. We had the usual interminable wait for our hire car, and despite having pre-booked, they were completely out of compacts. We actually ended up with a Ford Focus, and though it had leather trim and lots of electronic goodies… it definitely lacked something in the “oomph” department. The afternoon was already well advanced and we’d booked a hotel just a little out of town in Henderson to ease us in to the whole road-trip phenomena. Once we’d booked in and sorted ourselves out, we toodled off for some tea at “The Cheesecake Factory”. This was on the recommendation of 2nd born who had visited their Palm Springs emporium. It was not an unpleasant experience, but a little over-sold I think. I don’t feel the need to revisit before I shuffle off this mortal coil. It was the first time I’d ever ordered a salad and not been able to finish it though. Because it was huge, not because it was bad. Au contraire… I was eager to have it boxed up for a second round the following day. A relatively early night and we were all set for the first full day “on the road”.

Sunday

The forecast had been for cold, showery weather the entire week, and we were delighted that we had a sunny day instead. I hit the gym (it won) and Mrs E actually ran all the way to the Cheesecake Factory and back, just to make sure it was still there. We are a leisurely breakfast and headed off to Hoover Dam. No particular reason – when you’ve seen one hydro dam, you’ve seen them all – but it was along the way. The weather steadily improved and temperatures rose to almost 30°C. I know this because I’d fiddled with the car’s display and managed to get it to show the external temperature in Celsius since Fahrenheit meant nothing to me. (I did accidentally on purpose forget to set it back though, just to annoy the next renter who will almost certainly NOT be from Canada.) The waters behind the dam looked quite low and there was a telling white mark high up no the rocks showing where a more healthy level might be. The spillways were interesting and showed a mechanical barrier that could be lifted almost light an aeroplane’s wing flaps, to control flow over the spillway. I hadn’t really thought about it, but the dam crossed the state line and there were two clocks showing Nevada and Arizona time. Usually they’re an hour apart, one being Pacific, and the other Mountain time zones. But… Arizona has decided not to use Daylight Saving, so it didn’t advance its clocks for Summer, and they’re actually both at the same time for now. Except Navajo lands… they opted to use DST anyway, just for kicks. It was all too much for MrsE’s iPhone, but my BlackBerry seemed to figure it out just fine. My salad from the previous evening was a little tepid when we ate lunch, but still crisp and tasty. We were discussing Area 51 when we saw a custom painted van with an alien painted on the side. This van was nothing but a curiosity… until we noticed it in every town we stopped in all the way up to Moab!

After an amble around the gift shop and some photos of the Art Deco designs of the dam, we were off to Williams, South of the Grand Canyon. We chose to take the scenic route – literally – and took the old Route 66, for no other reason than it felt like a touristy thing to do!

There was a railway running parallel to the road for much of the way to Williams, and I was amused to see the same engines (BNSF) as sometimes run through White Rock, BC.

Williams is a sleepy little town, and after a nice barbecue dinner, we turned in for our first REALLY big desert day. Tomorrow we were off to see the Grand Canyon… on a train!

To be continued…





On regional cheese and milk-maids

2 03 2014

Hello faithful reader.
I know I’ve been less than engaged of late. I’ve written nary a line for weeks, yet here you still are… indulging my need to write rambling screeds of nonsense, then casting them like so much epistolic (I use the word loosely which I’m sure you’ll have no problem agreeing with) flotsam (or is it jetsam? – I always get them confused) onto the tides of the interwebs.

Photo: Flotsam & Jetsam, The Disney Wikia

Years ago I had a friend who worked at Mars – the US confectioner – in Maidenhead, UK (a place name that still makes me smirk with a pubescent love of uncommon words). They’ve branched out over their 100+ year history. First, the younger Mr Mars was estranged from his father and sent off to do what he could with the eponymous bar in the UK. “Not too shabbily”, it turned out. It was tweaked for the British palate, and the rest is confectionery history. Thank the gods Hershey wouldn’t do a deal with him and the UK Mars bar has superior chocolate. Can’t beat the special edition dark chocolate ones in my view. By the way, I heartily recommend Chocolate Wars by Deborah Cadbury (yes THAT Cadbury) for a really interesting look at the rise of the chocolate industry in Europe, the US and obviously the UK. Lindt, Mars, Rowntree, Hershey, Fry’s, Cadbury’s… they’re all in there. Even van Houtte. Great read.

Amazon: Chocolate Wars

Anyway, I digress. They also branched out into vending machines.
And meat pies and sausages.
And dog food. (Just a coincidence, I’m sure.)
All this just to say that said aforementioned friend once explained to me the difference between “best before” and “eat/consume before” dates on foodstuffs. The former is a date by which the manufacturer has deemed their product will start to be perceived as less than optimum to the consumer. The latter is the date beyond which the subsequent medical well-being of the diner can no longer be guaranteed. Since the former is more a matter of cosmetics, and the current fashion for people to claim allergies to everything from peanuts to shellfish makes the latter a much less well-defined thing to prove, the former is much more widely seen on packaging. The two are also sometimes quietly merged into the much less specific and therefore more defensible “sell by” date.

I was once in a discussion around best before dates, food, and how the length of time on the shelf seemed to vary shop-to-shop. In the UK, people tended (perhaps someone resident on the fair isles could comment if it’s still the case) to treat “best before” as “consume by” in any case, and would get irate if a shop still had items on its shelf that were “past it”, as it were. Obviously large supermarkets would prefer as long a shelf life as possible to avoid having to discard food before it was sold. They’d be pretty well forced to reduce the price as it approached it’s “sell by date” – especially for things like meat or fish. If they were found to still have items on their shelves that were “past it”, reputations could be tattered in the cut-throat high-street supermarket market. Past it food was a phenomenon found only in shonky corner shops – not the large supermarket chains such as Sainsbury’s, Tesco or even good ol’ Morrison’s. So it was common to buy food with several days remaining between date of purchase and the sell by date. I won’t comment here on irradiated food or nitrogen in your bag of salad, just that one didn’t normally find the label date on purchased food to be any time soon.

The notable exception was the venerable Marks & Sparks, who as we all know has been operated since biblical times by St. Michael. Actually, Messrs. Marks and Spencer were a couple of Leeds lads (Loiners) who established a Penny Bazaar in the 1880′s and never looked back. Marks was a Jewish immigrant from Belarus and Spencer was a cashier and shrewd money man. The apparently saintly Michael was actually Simon Marks’ dad. Anyway, back to the yarn: M&S would always have food on the shelf with ridiculously close sell by dates – a few days at most. But this was actually astute marketing…

You see, M&S charge a little more for their food. And, by and large, it’s also a little better. So – they don’t want you hanging on to food past its “best before” date, simply because it has yet to cultivate botulism and is therefore technically still edible. It’s important for their image that you are consuming their foodstuffs whilst they are still in their prime… not merely still technically edible.

So anyway, when we came to live in Canada two big things hit us when food shopping. Firstly there were few items with ANY nutritional information on the packaging (GM soya beans were a big issue in the UK and Europe back in 2001, and scrutinising food labels was a habit)… let alone “best before” dates. Worse though… much worse: you can’t buy alcohol in the supermarkets! But that’s off topic (and BC at least is now actually considering the sale of alcohol in places other than government liquor stores that only open when people can’t use them).

Photograph by: Stuart Davis, via Vancouver Sun

Where was I? Oh yes… labelling. I am pleased to report that it is now pretty common to have food in BC accompanied by at least some vague information about its content. My daughter only yesterday was bemoaning food labelling. She’s studying life sciences (biology and the like) at Waterloo University. She said that she had firmly believed that one shouldn’t eat food if its ingredients list contained items you couldn’t pronounce. I tend to agree. She may even have picked up that idea from something I said when she was younger and “impressionabl-er”. Unfortunately, since her area of study now included lots of long words, this was no longer a sufficient litmus test.

Point? Yes – there is a point. I’m getting there. It may not be particularly sharp, and I don’t guarantee you won’t resent your eventual arrival, but yes, there is a point.

Regulars may recall that since early January, Chez Pachyderm has been in upheaval with the renovation of the kitchen. This basically involved lots of rewiring, re-plumbing of the upstairs bathroom (don’t ask), asbestos, you name it… Several lost souls were returned to the netherworld and I’m unreliably told that House and Home will be featuring us in an upcoming edition of “most frustrating projects”. But it’s all but finished now. A couple of missing shelves and a wobbly wall socket, but otherwise done. Usable at last. So… we went food shopping to stock the wonderful new fridge/freezer. Mrs Elephant unwisely left me with the shopping trolley whilst she went to look for some milk. In her absence, I managed to locate several much more interesting items. Things like prosciutto, Camembert cheese and the like. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to find some Limburger cheese. This is a bit of an in joke because the company I work for has its old (pre-Canon acquisition) headquarters in Venlo, in the Netherlands. This is very close to the German border, and the area is called… you guessed it… Limburg. It is actually a bit stinky (the cheese I mean), and not dissimilar to Port Salut in scent and taste, if you’re familiar with that. Ironically, the cheese itself was from “over the line” in Germany.

Wikipedia: Limburger cheese

The connection is that the first wheel of Camembert I picked up was a day past “the best before”. Old instincts kicked in and I scoffed. Ew… “old” food on the shelf of a major supermarket! (Of course – I was conditioned to treat any date as “eat by” or “will contain deadly bacteria by”, rather than the much more benign reality of “might be slightly less than show-winning status by”). Naturally, I replaced the cheese for some less discerning shopper to catch listeria from and picked up the one beneath it with a much more satisfactory date a few weeks hence. Later in my rounds, I had to rummage through no less than 6 pots of Greek yoghurt to find one dated in the future. This problem was obviously endemic at Save-on Foods! I felt a little like Kevin Smith‘s mum, in her character as “The milk-maid” in Clerks - sifting through every jug of milk looking for the one with the date furthest away!

Wikipedia: Clerks

The joke though, as no doubt you will have long ago predicted, was on me. The third kind of cheese I bought was a new one for me: Adarga de Oro. Spanish apparently. Alabaster white… quite a silky smooth look to it. It’s a blend of cow, goat and sheep’s milk. I tried it today. Lovely. Only as I rewrapped it did I notice the best before date was 25th February… 4 days before I bought it, and 5 before I ate it. As I said – it’s pretty tasty. I wonder how much better it was before it was past its best…

Photo: CompraJamon – Adarga de oro








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