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The trip over the South West of the USA, December 1997 - January 1998

Brief notes and comments


-- The map --

The trip was an absolute blast. Covered 5640 miles roundtrip, visited 9 states plus some of us stepped 60 feet into Mexico (and got back in the US despite of the INS-created obstacles). Here are some flashbacks. Be prepared for "bumpy" style - this is not an essay, these are really brief and sometimes ironic flashbacks.

 - International team: 3 Russians, 2 Ukrainians, 1 Bulgarian and 1 American. One more American joined us for the Grand Canyon part of the trip.

 - About 30 hours of non-stop driving to Santa Fe, NM through IL, MO, OK and TX. As every kid knows, the further to the south, the colder it gets, so in Texas the road was covered by a quarter-inch layer of ice. The speed was 15-20 mph, and the view of multiple cars that went off the road was certainly not very comforting...

 - Mexican restaurant in Santa Fe... We are hungry, and the food is very good (and, of course, hot). Mariachi band plays Beatles and rock-n-roll - unforgetable.

 - Christmas night in Santa Fe - very unusual and beautiful.

 - Snow in the Rio Grande valley. In its very beginning (not far from Santa Fe) Rio Grande is not that "grande"... But it gets there when you go South.

 - The sign at the campground: "Parking for Ukrainians only, all others will be towed". Pinched myself, shook my head - it was indeed "for Ukrainians only". It turned out that the owners were Ukrainians, but they weren't in, so we didn't get acquainted. The campground was very expensive, so we pitched our tents in prairie of the nearby National Forest.

 - The night in the prairie. Never ever try to hug a 3-foot cactus! But it certainly can serve as a very nice Christmas tree, if you happen to have Christmas lights (thanks, Mike!).

 - Tombstone, AZ - the place of the "Gunfight at the OK Corral", etc. Everything is "Wild West", all men wearing ponchos, hats and long guns. Everything is commercialized, but funny. The postcard "Hanging around in Tombstone, Arizona" shows the gallows with a loop. Interesting coctails in the local "Big Nose Kate's Saloon" include "Sex in the desert" (vodka, Amaretto, cranberry juice) and "Screaming orgasm" (Irish Creme, Kahlua, Amaretto). I should confess, that the Sex was good, but my trip-mates didn't let me to experience the Orgasm. They came up with the lame reason that I had to drive, but what's the connection between orgasm and driving?

 - Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (AZ), 5 miles from the Mexican border. Nice, sunny and warm, with plenty of different cacti. I'm affraid to think how hot it gets there during the summer, if we wore short-sleeved shirts in December. In July there are on average 25 days with the temperature above 38 C (100 F) in the shadow. The desert in winter is very nice. Some cacti are 30-40 feet high (which means that they are about 200 years old). Some cacti actually jump on you. Very deceiving-looking "teddy bear cactus" looks so nice, soft and huggable... And then it jumps on you at the slightest touch, grabs you with hundred fisherman's hooks and insanely hurts when you try to get rid of it. And those hooks look so soft from the distance, but they actually stick even to the hard leather of mountaineering boots...

 - USA and Mexico border in AZ looks very peaceful. It goes right in the middle of the desert, one can't see any fences or towers or anything like this. Right along the border (actually - at the border) there is a national park road that anyone can drive on. I asked Mexican border gards to let me sneak 20 meters in Mexico, so I could take the shot of the USA "from the outside". On the way back managed to avoid the American gards by proving that the sign "Do not enter" is written for cars, not for hikers.

 - The Pacific Crest Trailhead in California (this is a hiking trail that goes North-South across the US from Mexico to Canada, about 2600 miles). Asked the Border patrolman, he lead us to the trailhead. Little trail register, sign "Pacific Crest Trail, southern terminus", and 2 meters behind the sign - the border fence. Slept in the tents 100 feet from the border line (as the patrolman said, "I wouldn't recommend it, but why the heck not?"). The border is VERY different, not peaceful at all. The US Border Patrol agents in their Bronchos constantly drive along, sensors, mobile interseption groups - you name it. They drag the huge tire behind the car on the dirt road, and later read the footsteps from the dirt. Cooked hot chocolate for the patrolmen, had very interesting conversations. That night they caught 20 intruders (on the 35-mile stretch of the border). As they sait, this was a "very quiet night". During the "season" (usually February-April) they average 14000 a month (that is almost 500 a night)! In Russian tradition, I threw a penny on the Mexican side (which was interpreted by some as financial aid).

 - Sunny San Diego, swimming in the Pacific Ocean. The ocean is indeed salty, but not very pacific. After getting some scratches and bruises managed to find a crack in the shore rock that was more or less covered from the mighty surf and finally jumped in the water. Unfortunately, the crack was small, so I didn't have enough space to fulfill my rule of swimming "No mater how cold the water is, I have to do 5 strokes with each hand". Actually, the water wasn't cold at all, so enjoyed the "surf jacuzzy" for about 15 minutes straight.

 - Los Angeles... "All I wanna do is just have fun on the Santa Monica boulevard". Nice neighborhoods of Beverly Hills and Bel Air. "Armed security personnel" signs by the houses. Rolls-Royce and Ferrary on the street, or estates with 40-feet palm trees - quite impressive, you can't see this in Lafayette, IN. Los Angeles drivers are crazy, so I had to mimic the style. Hollywood, the letters on the hill. Unfortunately, we didn't have much time there, so didn't see much. Walked the Hollywood Walk of Fame - everything is expensive and commercialized.

 - Driving to Las Vegas, NV. We are late, so the motto of the whole trip is "We don't have time to drive at 80 mph".

 - Las Vegas is a nice oasis of lights and palm trees in the middle of the desert. At 3am the life is just starting. Casinos, casinos and more casinos, they are huge, they are different, they are multiple. Cheap hotels, cheap restaurants, cheap everything - the main goal is to lure you in the casino. Recalled the advice of friends at home: "When you'll go to the casino, take with you only $5-$10, and leave all other money, checkbooks, credit cards in your car". Spent $5 in the casino, at one moment could've walked away with about $10 gain, but decided to take it to the end, with easily predictable results. Very nice ad at the gas station in the city: "Free aspirin and tender sympathy".

 - Drive-through weddings in Las Vegas - open 24 hours 7 days a week. Just shell out about $25, and you're married. And sex services ads at the nearby corners.

 - Hoover Dam across Colorado River is high! Don't remember much because it was late at night, and you could hardly see a thing. But at daytime it must be beautiful.

 - Grand Canyon is The Grand Canyon. Huge and deep. Everything is flat, then all of a sudden there comes a crack in the Earth almost vertical mile deep with Colorado River at the bottom, and then on the other side it's flat again. The canyon is 277 miles along the river, the width at the top about 10 miles (minimum is about 5 miles), the river is about 100-150 meters wide. The outer canyon is about 2000-3000 feet deep, then there is a plato about a mile wide, and then the inner canyon another 1000 feet to the river. The top is mostly sandstones and limestones, the inner canyon is mostly granite. Unfortunately, the guidebooks didn't tell much about the unique geology of the place, so I really wished we had a good geologist in our groop.

 - We're going down the Canyon. At the rim it's sunny and refreshing (about 40-45 F), about 2 inches of snow. The snow dissappears after first 600 vertical feet, and it gets about 20 F warmer as you go all the way to the bottom. During the summer it must be hot and dry hell there (an advise is "Don't hike between 10am and 4pm"). The Bright Angel trail is the most visited trail in the canyon, so it's wide, smoth and looks like Broadway.

 - New Year celebration at the bottom of the Canyon. It turns out that when you eat all the hidden New Year snacks, cakes and drinks from your backpack, the pack becomes significantly lighter! But, of course, you have to take out all the trash, including all wraps and cigarette butts. The rules and fines are very severe, but it definitely make sense - in such hot and dry environment that is visited by such a crowd the garbage would take forever to decompose. Even though the majority of visitors doesn't go not only to the river, but even to the plato, the rule is - "No garbage allowed".

 - 3 more days in the canyon. We are traversing the inner plato and leaving the area of "mass visitation". Everything is cut by side canyons. Here's the trail on one side, there in 150 feet you can see it on the other side, but between them there's 200 vertical feet down and back up. So you take about 3/4 mile detour along the edge of this baby canyon. 3 miles (out of 277) along the river in reality correspond to about 12 miles of the trail on the plato. Very warm and sunny, everybody's getting tan. But the warm jacket proves to be very useful at night.

 - Went to the river again. This time we didn't follow the trail, but the bottom of the creek canyon. I skinny dipped in the Colorado river. Unfortunately, this was in the middle of Class II-III rapid, so I could only stay in the calm area by the shore (and had to grab the rocks strongly, of course). The water was much colder than the Pacific, so I was the only one crazy enough to get in. I'd say, it was about 50-55.

 - Big Bang! Climbing all the way up. The Hermit trail is much less visited than Bright Angel one, and therefore it looks much more like a wilderness trail. Much more pleasant, both in terms of beauty and less-civilized terrain. Altitude gain is about 3500 feet on 8 miles. Once more you recall the mountaineering experience that says that 3/4 vertical mile is indeed a lot. The fastest ones in our group made it in 4 hours, I managed in 4.5 and the rear end made it in 5.5 hours. You go all soaking wet in a single T-shirt, there comes a snow on the last mile or two, but you don't feel like stop sweating. I can't even imagine doing the thing in the summer. Rangers advise to drink about a quart an hour in order to compensate the dehidration because of heat and dryness. They said that during the summer it's so hot and dry, that you don't even sweat. That is, you do sweat, but you don't see or feel it because it evaporates momentarily. Therefore you don't see the usual signs of heat and overexertion, and you think "Hey, I'm fine, I don't even sweat", but ka-boom! - and you are dehydrated. But that's during the summer, while in winter we did sweat as Mother Nature meant us to do. Though the rangers told us that even in winter they have to deal with some "I-know-everything-and-I-ain't-listening-to-nobody" idiots who manage to get dehydrated.

 - And after that there was the end of the fairy tail. The Ball was over, the Cinderella had to get back to the kitchen, and we had to drive back home for another 35 hours. But the nice thing was a welcoming feast that my Mom prepared (which was twice as great after all those fast food joints on the road).


Copyright © 1998 Lev Gorenstein, lev@ledorub.poxod.com

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