Wednesday, 4 March 2009

USA 1996 - Day 2, The Grand Canyon & cowboy dining

Thoughtfully the organizers of the trip thought we might need a day to rest after our long flight so the next day was free of any official engagements and ours to do as we pleased with so Allan decided that we would drive to the two hundred mile journey to the far north of the State to see the Grand Canyon. This seemed a good idea but involved a very early start before it even got light and we were off and away before I had time to check to see if I had a hangover and even before the breakfast bar was open in the restaurant. The route took us along a highway that went first north and then west around the city which was sensible because Phoenix is the fifth largest city in the USA and suffers notorious congestion, and then we picked up Interstate 17 which according to individual preference is called either the Black Canyon Freeway or the Arizona Veteran’s Highway and we started to drive north.

As we had skipped breakfast it was inevitable that Dave would be the first to crack and declare his hunger and he predictably started to nag about a food stop after only a few minutes. After about thirty miles Allan could stand it no longer and at the next available intersection left the Interstate and headed in an unknown direction towards the municipality of New River. I will never know if this was just a major stroke of luck or pure inspiration because I was convinced that he had no idea at all where he was going but just as I was wondering where this dusty road was going to lead Allan swung into a car park of a diner called the Roadrunner Restaurant and declared it the perfect place for breakfast.

It turned out the place was quite famous; the Roadrunner was established in 1964 and the story goes that its first bartender was only six years old because when the original owner arrived with his new liquor license and a celebratory bottle of whiskey, he appointed the only non-drinker present at the time to pour the first drinks.

Inside there were plenty of cowfolk enjoying huge plates of food and we all agreed that Allan had made a very good choice indeed. After we had settled down at a table the waitress brought coffee and menus and we set about making our selections. When she returned Keith went first and she enquired how he liked to take his eggs. Now, Keith was an easy going, mild mannered sort of chap but this simple question seemed to trigger an Incredible Hulk type transformation, ‘Eggs!’ he said in his distinctive Norfolk drawl (and it works better if you can try it with the accent) ‘I aren’t eating eggs, I aren’t eating something that’s been squeezed out of a chicken’s arse!’ We really didn’t need the graphic details of a chickens reproductive system and neither quite frankly did the rest of the diner. There was stunned silence all round! This uncharacteristic behaviour took us all by surprise, the tables went deathly quiet and needless to say the outburst seemed to alarm the waitress who after all was only doing her job and would have been wholly within her rights to decide for herself that he probably liked his eggs simply cracked and served raw and runny all over his head. Between us we managed to smooth over the situation and we were careful after that to keep Keith well away from eggs for the rest of the trip. We had a nice filling breakfast and made sure that we left a generous tip.

Outside, the sun was up now and there was a big blue sky with little wispy white clouds on the horizon but as we travelled further north it stared to get colder and the highway verges were piled high with snow where the ploughs had cleared the carriageways of a recent fall. Arizona is best known for its desert climate with exceptionally hot summers and mild winters, but the high country in the north features pine forests and mountain ranges with much cooler weather than the lower deserts and we were beginning to approach them right now. We passed by Black Canyon City, climbed through the Prescott National Park and somewhere around Flagstaff we crossed the famous old Route 66 without realising the significance of the event. Finally Interstate 17 came to an abrupt end when we reached a junction and we selected a route across Coconimo Plateau through a Navajo Indian Reservation and continued north to the Grand Canyon South Rim visitor centre.

We arrived at the entrance, Allan paid the entrance fee and we parked the car in an almost deserted car park and walked the short distance to the rim of the canyon, which has been created over a period of six million years by the erosive action of the Colorado River cutting down through the plateau. The canyon is four hundred and fifty kilometres long, up to thirty kilometres wide and reaches a depth of more than one and half kilometres and is one of the most magnificent natural wonders of the World. This is a very big Canyon indeed and it is almost impossible to get a true sense of scale as you stand and look down into the abyss below. I had been here barely twelve months before but it was different now, it was a little later in the year and there were fewer people and there was a lot of snow on the ground.

After we had had our fill of the natural wonders of the Canyon we eventually made our way to Grand Canyon Village which is located on the south rim of the canyon, right in the National Park, and whose only real function is to accommodate visiting tourists and it seemed to consist mostly of motels and helicopter landing pads. The origins of the village trace back to the railroad built to the canyon in 1901 and many of the buildings in use today date from that period. As we drove through Dave spotted a MacDonalds and as it was sometime after lunch he insisted that Allan make a high risk manoeuvre across a busy six lane highway to negotiate our way to the drive thru window to get the midday burger fix than no-one really needed.

Two hundred miles was a long way to drive but it really was worth it and now it was time to turn round and go all the way back. There was no real alternative but to follow the same route and so for the first fifty miles we headed south east back along Highway 180 and through the volcanic Red Mountains. The road snaked through what is part of the San Francisco Volcanic Field on its way towards Flagstaff and about half way to the city we stopped off at the visitor centre and took some photographs of the mountain brightly illuminated by the late afternoon sun. Later along the route in the Navajo reservation and Allan insisted in stopping several times to get ripped off at roadside Indian souvenir shops to purchase various bits of junk jewellery to take back home to his family as gifts.

From Flagstaff we picked up the Interstate and returned directly through the pine forests to Phoenix in an uneventful journey except that Allan had a habit of driving very close to the verge and Ben complained about that constantly. Somewhere along the route as we dropped down from the mountains the snow disappeared and sometime before we got back to the city it had completely gone.

Time was getting on so there was only time for a quick change and a drink in the bar before we were collected by the sales team from Heil Engineering, who were partners of Jack Allen and manufacturers of the vehicle that we had come to see and assess. A man called Mike found us in the bar and collected us up and drove us away for dinner at an out of town restaurant.

It was dark and so we had no idea where we were heading but fairly soon we were out of the city and into a wilderness area with not a lot of promising activity until suddenly Mike swung into a car park and there was a wooden shack with bright lights in front of us. Outside there was a hitching rail with horses tethered and drinking from a trough and as we walked across the car park two dusty cowboys approached on horseback from out of the gloom and tied up their horses in a lazy, end of the day sort of way, dusted themselves down as best they could and went inside just ahead of us with chaps flapping and spurs jingling just as though we were back in the old west.

Inside it was traditional and functional with bench seats and tables with red checkered table cloths and western memorabilia on the walls. Mike introduced us to the rest of the Heil team who had arrived earlier and immediately ordered pitchers of beer for the table. I liked that! This was an authentic western cowboy restaurant and the waitress supplied us with a menu that consisted of very little choice except steaks and boiled potatoes. No french fries and no salad and no vegetables either, this wasn’t the place for vegetarians let me tell you. So we ordered our steaks and when they arrived they were so huge that I had no idea where to begin. To be honest there was far too much for me and I was only about a quarter way through before I had had enough. I kept going as best as I could but I’m sure that I left at least half of it, still, I suppose they had a dog around the back who enjoyed the other half later!

We had an excellent night at the cowboy restaurant and at the end of the evening Mike drove us back to the motel at the end of a very long day. Allan and Keith were too tired for last drinks but I was up for last orders with Dave and Ben and we stayed far longer than we planned largely on account of an exceptionally attractive and persuasive barmaid and a seductive bottle of Bombay Sapphire.

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