Friday, September 19

An LA bonus

Our USA road trip is over. We’ve travelled an extraordinary 3,800km in 16 days, visiting a total of six states (although we spent less than five hours driving through Idaho). Thanks Garry!  We also unintentionally extended our vacation by extra day after missing our flight home.

We arrived at the airport on Saturday evening in time to hear a final boarding announcement. We were naturally stunned and couldn't understand how we'd got the departure time so wrong.  However, Qantas was very accommodating. It promptly shifted our ticket to the same flight number; departing the following day.  As fate would have it the delay ultimately proved a blessing in disguise.

Garry had originally tried without success to secure us a First Class upgrade using points.  He tried again using our new flight details. This time he was successful and, as a result, we flew home in total luxury.  I'll happily spend an extra day in LA to secure a lie-flat bed topped with sheepskin-lined mattress.

The unscheduled delay also gave us time to do a little extra sightseeing in Los Angeles. Up to this point we'd simply spent two mad days scouring city stores for shopping bargains. We began our day with a trip to the California Science Museum. It's currently hosting a exhibition of artifacts from the infamous Pompeii eruption, and is one of only four locations displaying an original space shuttle.

We spent an hour viewing exquisite Roman antiquities in the Pompeii exhibition.  The experience concluded with a room filled with plaster casts of bodies encased in volcanic ash. In the 18th Century, archeologists discovered that life-like cavities had formed around the entombed bodies as their organic matter decayed. They filled these spaces with plaster to recreate the original human form. Some of the resulting “statues”  poignantly capture the final moments of death.  It's rather incredible to see.

Those who know me well will appreciate that the highlight of our museum visit was a chance to see the Endeavour Space Shuttle close up. It was the last shuttle built for NASA. All five of the space agency's shuttle were actually built in factory on the outskirts of LA. In acknowledgment of its origins, the Endeavour was shipped to LA after its retirement and put on display.

The shuttle is currently housed in temporary display “shed” behind the museum. It’s been left much it was after its final mission into space. As a result, scorch marks from its fiery re-entry still streak the fuselage and protective tiles on its underbelly. Endeavour looks well used. I spent more than half an hour marveling at its bulk, walking underneath it wings and viewing it from every angle.

The museum itself is located next to the LA Coliseum. This stadium has hosted opening ceremonies for the 1932 and 1984 Summer Olympics. Its iconic arch gateway and Olympic torch were instantly recognizable as we drove into the adjacent carpark. Despite many trips to LA I’d never actually seen it in person.  Neither had Garry.  We took a few minutes to walk up to its main gate and marvel at this piece of Olympic history.

Garry and I then drove pass the soaring skyscrapers that make up Downtown LA.  Another first for both of us. It’s hard to believe that these tower really will survive a major earthquake. I suspect my skepticism reflects the influence of the 1974 disaster movie, Earthquake.  I saw it as an eight year old child and for weeks afterwards every tall structure filled me with fear.

Shinjuku in Tokyo has similar high-rise office towers straddling another of the Pacific Rim's earthquake zones. However, for some irrational reason, LA’s structures feel more vulnerable than those in Japan.  I guess time will tell if LA's architects have been wise or foolish.

From Downtown we made our way up into the LA hills.  We were hoping to enjoy the panoramic view from Griffith Observatory. However, as we approached, we discovered traffic diversions in place and cars parked along the approach road for hundreds of metres. We decided to give this location a miss and continued west towards the equally scenic Mulholland Drive.

This purpose-built touring road has a number of scenic outlooks, including one that offers a grand view of the Hollywood sign and LA’s sprawling urban expanse. Our detour proved to be a smart choice.  Within minutes of arriving at the Hollywood Bowl outlook we had the scenic spot to ourselves. As the afternoon sun warmed us, we soaked in the view, and expressed just a hint of envy for nearby residents enjoying their hillside infinity pool.  It was the perfect way to finish our extended vacation.

Sunday, September 14

Salt Lake City

The Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway (Highway 128) is a spectacular drive along the Colorado River gorge, a few miles north of Moab, Utah. The route begins on a high plateau where the river meanders through flat, dry grassland. The road then follows the river as it begins to carve dramatic a gash into the landscape. This modest gully is the beginning of a canyon that ultimately form the Grand Canyon hundreds miles downstream.

Garry and I drove the highway on our way back to Salt Lake City. I’d driven it three years earlier and was thrilled to be able to share it with Garry. The road winds its way through spectacular gorges and broad river valleys for almost 28 miles.  As the river carves its way west, the resulting gorge becomes increasingly dramatic. Towering red sandstone cliffs line much of the route.  As you turn each corner, the cliffs appear to rise ever higher and steeper. It’s a truly breathtaking scene. 

We took a brief detour toards the ghost town of Cisco before rejoining the interstate highway. Cisco was founded as a water refilling station for steam locomotives in 19th Century. However, the demise of steam engines also sealed the town's fate and it was eventually abandoned. Today, all you can see are derelict wooden houses and rusting cars standing forlornly on an empty, barren plain. It's rather surreal.

Two hours later we enjoyed a late lunch at picnic ground on the banks of the Spanish Fork River.  We were amused by the Bear Country signs strung up around the picnic ground.  That is, until we took a short walk across a footbridge and found fresh bear tracks in the soft mud.  It was a rather sobering moment!

We arrived back in Salt Lake City mid-afternoon. This gave us just enough time to take a walking tour of downtown. Garry wasn’t impressed. He’s never been a fan of religious venues. Temple Square, the heartland of the Mormon Church, proved no different. As for me, I was curious to witness American’s only home-grown religion up close.

Temple Square is dominated by a series of church buildings, some relatively modern and others more than century old.  This includes the spectacular Salt Lake Temple. Clad in white stone, it was painstakingly built by Mormon pioneers between 1853 and 1893. Unfortunately it’s not open to the public.

Temple Square is filled with statues immortalizing the struggle of Utah's early pioneers and core tenants of the Mormon faith. The surrounding grounds are beautifully maintained. The traditionally, stark and grey-concrete landscape of a typical American city has been transformed by manicured lawns, dazzling flower beds, mature trees and verdant shrubs. It was all very immaculate.

From Temple Square we made our way up to Capitol Hill to see the State Capitol building. It’s impressive structure, capped by a domed rotunda.  Despite our desert surrounding, the building sits in the middle of an impossibly green lawn. Garry and I were equally fascinated by the surrounding residential district. The homes are rather modest.  They're nothing like the turn-of-the-century mansions we’d expected to find.

I had hoped to catch a rehearsal of the famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Unfortunately the scheduled session had been retimed for special 9/11 recording.  As a result, we arrived at the published session time just as the building was closing for the evening. I suspect Garry was secretly relieved.

No doubt Garry will tell you that the highlight of our Salt Lake City visit was dinner. While returning to our hotel we stumbled across a rather fancy looking Brazilian Churrascaria . These restaurants serve meat on enormous metal rods which waiters continually carve on to your plate as they wander by. We first encountered this dining experience in Rio.  In the years since, we've enjoyed similar venues in London and New York.

Salt Lake City proved no different. We samples an array of meat, accompanied by a superb Napa Valley wine. Even the salad bar was an experience.  It offered dozens of truly sumptuous dishes, including a particularly delicious smoked salmon fillet. Needless to say we returned to our hotel with our appetite fully sated.


Thursday, September 11

Arches National Park

 Some images from our adventures today.  More details tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 10

1100 kms later...

"Tuesday's forecast is for a high of 1°C and an overnight low of -5°C. Expect constant rain turning to snow for the next 48 hours. Snow will accumulate up to 4cm in places."

This was the forecast that greeted us yesterday morning as we made final preparations to spend three days and two nights touring Glacier National Park. Our itinerary included one night in a cabin on the shores of Lower Saint Mary Lake, and a second night on the edge of the park.

We were also planning to spend a day on the park's famous “Going to the Sun Road.”,  This 50 mile mountain road is considered one of the USA's most iconic scenic routes. Popular tour guides describe the road as an asphalt ribbon that hugs the mountainside. At times its winds through tight curves and passengers on the passenger side of the vehicle can look over the road’s edge, while slowly rising to 6,646 feet over the remote Logan Pass.  This didn't sound like the kind of place to be trapped in a snow storm.

As a result, Garry and I made a last minute decision to change our itinerary and head south rather than north. Earlier in the year it had proven impossible to book accommodation around the park without paying one night’s deposit. This meant that the money for our cabins had effectively been spent already.  We were therefore keen to kept any change as cheap as possible.  An hour of internet searching and phone calls resulted in plans for a new “cost effective” itinerary.

So where are we now?  Tonight (Tuesday) Garry and I are settled comfortably in at Moab. It’s a small town in central Utah, about 200 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. Moab sits by the banks of the Colorado River. It’s here that the river begins to carve out canyons that eventually morph into the Grand Canyon several hundred miles west. It’s also the only place where you can actual drive along the canyon floor as the river winds its way towards the Pacific Ocean.

To get here we drove a total of 732 miles, or 1,178kms over two days.  Yesterday we drove more than seven hours from Bozeman, Montana to Salt Lake City, then another 3.5 hours today. Our route yesterday took us through Idaho for the first time. We can report that the state is a rather sparsely populated expanse of mountains, valleys and vast brown-grass smothered ranches. There's not much to see here. Although we did learn that Idaho sits halfway between the North Pole and the Equator.
In fact, yesterday’s highlight was a quick stop at the Berkeley Pit in Butte (the town's name is pronounced “Beauty” - which you find rather ironic in a moment). The pit was once the largest open cast mine the USA. More than 1.4 billion tonnes of ore was extracted from its depths over a period of 28 years.  When the mine finally closed the pit was more than 1,800 feet.

Today, it’s little more than giant, barren lake on the edge of town. However, you cannot swim on boat on the “lake” as its water is saturated with heavy metals that have leached from the surrounding rock. It’s now considered one of the USA’s most toxic sites in need of decontamination.

Currently the lake's surface is below ground water level so it acts as a 'sink", drawing water towards it.  However, were the lake to rise any further the opposite process would occur and its deadly chemical soap would seep into the surrounding ground water.  As a result, pumps work around the clock to extract water from the pit.

Today we stopped for a late lunch in Arches National Park, four miles north of Moab. You can see some of the photos we took above before the weather closed in.  Fortunately, tomorrow's forecast is for stunning weather  so we’ll come back for a more leisurely tour. Stay tuned for some wonderfully sunlit images.

Update: 7:00pm
We’ve just heard that the Going to the Sun road was closed to traffic earlier today. Yesterday's change of plans was clearly the right decision.

Update: 13 September
The Going to the Sun road has finally reopened along its full length after closing for five days.