American archive

My first trip (1980 – blog written in 2009)

I’ve volunteered to direct two Stoppard one-act plays next year.  I say that, but in practice I would only direct one (Dirty Linen) for the simple reason that my ambition is to act in the other – New Found Land.  The latter includes a 5-page monologue about a journey across America, land of the free and home of the brave, that I am just itching to perform.  A feat of memory, sure, but what a piece… and something I can honestly say that I have emulated, one way or another.  Not quite method acting, but certainly a rich pool of experience from which to draw.

My first trip to the States was as a 20-year old student.  I worked in an aluminium (or “aluminum” as they quaintly call it) factory in Harrisonburg, Virginia, then hitch-hiked across to the Pacific in about 4 days flat, eventually returning by Greyhounds.  Many adventures along the way and a journey indelibly printed on my brain til the day I die.  Such is the stuff dreams are made of – a real life adventure.

That was my first visit, though I have made several more, including trips with the family to Florida (2006 – all the Disney Parks plus Clearwater Beach on the Gulf Coast), and back there in 2007 to attend my sister’s wedding in a delightful whitewashed chapel in Palmetto, and the best wedding reception ever on Anna Maria Island.  Also on that trip we went to Busch Gardens in Tampa, Coco beach, Cape Kennedy Space Centre, and, especially for the benefit of my mum and the kids, to NYC.

Back from the land of the free… (Sept 2009)

So picture the scene.  There I was, sitting on the steps down to the terrace at Caesar’s Palace on the strip (Las Vegas Boulevard) sipping a freshly-made mojito in a large plastic cup through a straw, waiting for the turn of the hour to go and enjoy the delightful aquatic choreography of the Bellagio fountains.  The late afternoon heat is palpable but not unbearable, so I’m dressed in shorts and t-shirt.  Sandals digging into my feet have been termporarily abandoned and my attention is held by the spendid soundtrack booming out from the bar on the terrace below.  From the steel rim circling the top of the bar, a fine water spray hisses out, cooling the people seated at tables below.

It’s an ideal spot for people-watching, and being Vegas there are tourists of every denomination, shape, size and language.  Some are apparently here for the gambling and itching to be back at the blackjack or poker tables, just out for a breath of freshly polluted air.  But most of those people are stuck inside 24 x 7.  The majority out here are enjoying the sights and sounds, like me.  My camera clicks away, recording by the thousand scenes from everyday life in Vegas (see my pics on Facebook.)

And suddenly I realise that this is as close to happiness as life gets.  Brash and tacky it might be, city of a thousand mobsters and fortunes lost rather than won, but viva Las Vegas indeed!  But this is the story of the holidays that preceded this blissful moment, so here goes…

What’s the saying?  It’s not the getting there, it’s the journey.  So it was on my latest trip too.  Flights from London to Vegas via Houston are not a thing to do if you’re the impatient sort anyway, but once there it was just the start.  For all the glitter, Vegas is just a money-making machine, all style and little substance.  To find the real America you have to be out and about, so off I went to pick up a hire car – a Hyundi Sonata – from the building serving all hire car outlets for Vegas airport (be warned – this building is a shuttle ride away from the airport itself, so don’t expect to pick up your car direct from the plane!)  From there I drove and drove and drove, meeting my American girlfriend (stop press: that relationship did not last though I do have happy memories of it!) – 1600 miles in a week! – pausing at various places to admire the incredibly beauty of mid-Western America and the joy of discovering things you never realised were there, serendipity indeed.

We found our way past Lake Mead and on to the Hoover dam.  I had passed the dam on a previous trip, but it’s an incredible feat of engineering at any time.  And now a fresh construction project is underway to build a road across a gaping chasm very close to the dam.  My breath was very nearly taken!  The bridge is almost balletic in its beauty, even if the traffic jam its construction caused was somewhat disruptive and prevented me from taking a pure picture down the front of the dam.  All the more remarkable for the fact that this is way out into the desert in searing heat…

Then on cross-country to Williams, Arizona.  Williams is a small railroad town, 60 miles south of the Grand Canyon.  It is noteworthy for being on Route 66, complete with all the souvenirs and memorabilia and plenty of Harleys on view, but what I will remember most about Williams is how totally unlike your mental image of Arizona it proved to be.  Indeed, it was more like a small town in the Scottish highlands – a gentle slope up towards the misty hills, pine forests, beautiful houses constructed like large painted cabins from local timber – it was little short of idyllic.  We stayed in a delightful b&b up in the hills, and went down into the town for the evening, enjoying live country music, beers and a meal at a truly old-fashioned diner that looked straight out of the 50s.

It’s not a long drive out of Williams before you hit a bone-dry desert landscape, though it is never less than spectacular.  Trees and vegetation grow in the red soil, while caverns loom and rocky mountains spring up from nowhere.  And then you are in the periphery of the Grand Canyon National Park, with its camping grounds, airport, picnic parks, pay booth.

And then suddenly, you park and walk a short distance… and it opens out before your eyes, in all its majesty.  You’ve seen it on TV but not in this scale or dimension.  If natural scenery were opera, this would be Wagner’s Ring Cycle – the grandest of the lot!  The cliche is that it takes your breath away, and no words, nor even photographs, can ever do it justice.  You have to be there.

If the Canyon is looking down on the Colorado River from on high, Zion National Park is about driving (or walking) through the valley and looking upwards.  Very different, but equally spectacular, and hugely recommended.  My only regret is that we did not have time to do Bryce Canyon while we were in that area.  Next time, maybe…

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