My flight landed in Denver late afternoon and the weather was not great. I had rented a car with Alamo, and my experience with them had been good. The desk staff would offer extras, like very other rental company, but it was in a manner that was never pushy. When asked where I was going they suggested a four wheel drive, due to the weather, and for once, I was glad to take their advice.
The drive to Aspen would take a few hours, and I would be lucky to get there before dark.
I had chosen a large black GMC from the motor pool. It was an ugly, sluggish vehicle, different from the Asian models that I would normally rent, but it was a first time, a new experience, and a mistake.
The sky above Denver was clear, but ahead of me were heavy black clouds. I love driving on the wide, straight highways in America, and the roads to Denver are mostly like this, until you get into the Rockies.
Although it was still daylight, the mountains were covered in dark cloud, and as the incline increased the road began to curve like a snake, with visibility reducing as the light rain turned to snow.
Before long the snow was falling hard, but it failed to settle on the road or wind-shield. The traffic was slow with several areas of roadworks, but after an hour, the cloud lifted and patches of blue sky reappeared. From there on it was a beautiful drive through the mountains to my destination.
Aspen is a lively, expensive ski resort in the winter and a scenic attraction in the summer, with hiking and many places of interest. But in May, it is dead.
I had rented a room in a rustic ski lodge, and was the only guest. The manager was a very friendly guy, about the same age as myself, and probably glad of someone to talk to. If I hadn’t been on the go for about twenty hours, I might have enjoyed his company. He obviously did not meet with many English, and was keen to talk about music from the 1960’s and 70’s. He asked about life in England through that period and shared his own experiences of going to concerts. I mentioned staying at the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and he was amazed to hear about it and vowed to get there one day.
I was awake early the following morning, showered, dressed and out exploring the town, just as the sun was rising. It was bitterly cold and almost everywhere was closed, but I found a bakers open, with a great little restaurant, and had a cooked breakfast and coffee.
I had seen photographs of a couple of splendid, snow-capped mountains called the Maroon Bells, and wanted to get to a viewing place, but on asking in the Tourist Information office was informed that the road was still closed, but if it was cleared, it might be open in a few hours, and I should come back later.
Nearby was the John Denver Sanctuary, which is a peaceful memorial garden, with a path winding through huge boulders, some inscribed with lyrics from his songs, and a tumbling stream.
Luckily the road had been cleared and I could take a drive up to the Maroon Bells parking lot. Alas, the sky had clouded over and although the view was perfect, there was not enough light to get rich colours and contrast. There was plenty of deep snow around which made for some interesting black and white shots, with the leafless trees and mountain peaks behind.
I left there late morning to start a 270 mile drive to Laramie, Wyoming. I avoided the main highways, which would have cut 2 hours from the journey, and chose ta route that would run through the centre of the mountain range.
The Rocky Mountains start near Albuquerque in New Mexico and run for 3,000 miles up into Canada, with peaks in Colorado as high as 14,000 feet above sea level.
Knowing that it would be dark by the time I reached Laramie, I limited my stops, but in places, the views on that road were quite stunning. The road twisted and turned, up and down, passing through small towns.
Speed limits could be ignored, and I passed very few vehicles throughout the six hour drive.
The city of Laramie has turned its cowboy past into a tourist attraction, and is a popular destination for Americans seeking out the ‘wild west’ experience of the country’s history.
Almost every establishment has a name related to cowboys or guns. There is a marker where the famous Bucket of Blood saloon once stood.
With only one full day in which to explore the area, I opted for the Wyoming Territorial Prison, which is one of the oldest buildings in Wyoming, dating back to 1872, and once held Butch Cassidy.
The site is spread over several acres and I spent most of the morning wandering around. Being out of season, there were only a couple of other visitors.
I left early the following morning for a drive back down to Denver Airport via Cheyenne.
That afternoon my friend Eamonn was waiting to greet me at Albuquerque Airport.
We checked in to the hotel and by early evening, we were drinking our first pints of the night.
It was a lovely warm New Mexico evening and the bar was also a micro brewery. We sat outside and were handed a beer menu of several pages, with what must have been one hundred or more brews, starting with the palest blonde and ending with the darkest porter.
We were on a fairly lively strip of restaurants, bars and clubs, and the hotel was very conveniently, just a twenty minute walk away.
Our next stop was an Italian restaurant, then close to midnight we were looking for another bar, but they had all closed. As we had almost given up, we could hear some interesting blues music from a few doors down. On entering, there were only a couple of customers left, and a few older guys backing a young, black female singer. We sat and listened to her last couple of numbers, and wished that we had arrived earlier.
We complemented her singing, which she appreciated, and offered us a slice of birthday cake.
She told us that she was born in England, and moved to America when she was 10 years old. But recently, she had developed breast cancer and it made her realise that life is short, and singing the blues was something that she always wanted to do. When she was told that she was cancer free, she started rehearsing with the musicians, and this was her first public gig.
She had a small business baking and selling all kinds of pies, and shipped them all over the States. The business was called Black Bird Pies.
The following morning we started late after a lazy breakfast, and had a leisurely drive to a small town, not far from the entrance to Monument Valley. There was a cafe nearby where we tried the local Navajo fry bread.
After an early breakfast, we still had a two hour drive to our destination.
The Navajo reservation stretches over an area exceeding 27,000 square miles of desert, within three States. When the native tribes were driven from their fertile lands, they were given the most barren stretches of desert and wilderness.
My experiences when staying in accommodation on Indian reservations has not been amazing. They are mostly poor, run-down places, but having said that, the rooms were always clean. Even the bars and restaurants had a dated, frugal sparseness to them.
Approaching Monument Valley was memorable. You can see the first huge peaks rising up in the distance from several miles away. As you get closer, there are more of them, and you drive past those on the perimeter, only to see lots more in the distance ahead.
You still have to drive a bit further before passing a few buildings and a sign informing you that you are entering the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, where you pay a small entrance fee.
There is a hotel, restaurant and gift store, where we shopped, had a coffee, and from which, we could observe the classic view of the valley itself.
I could throw down a dozen adjectives, such as stunning, vast, beautiful, but none could convey its splendour.
Although it is a valley, it’s about 5,000 feet above sea level, therefore, it is not a hot, arid desert.
It stretches over five square miles and covers the border between Arizona and Utah.
Armed with a map of the area, we embarked on the 4 mile dirt road drive, which twisted and turned between the sandstone buttes, some of which were a thousand feet high.
They were shaped over millions of years by the strong winds, and the erosion will continue until the last one is gone. But that’s a long way off.
A few hours (and over a hundred photos) later, we were at the end of the drive heading back to the hotel for lunch.
Until the film director, John Ford, used the area as a backdrop for several Western movies, it was not in the public eye. But once seen, film-goers from all over the country wanted to experience it for themselves. What was previously just another piece of reservation desert, became a respectable tourist attraction.
If you look at a map of America, you will see that the border lines of each state, other than where they are defined by the terrain, such as rivers and mountain ranges, are mostly straight lines. Because of the straight lines, there are several places where two or three corners meet. But there is only one place in America where four corners meet and the lines on the map form a cross. This place, surprisingly, is called the Four Corners, and is on the Navajo Reservation near Monument Valley, and just happened to be our next stop.
The exact position where the states of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada join is known as a quadripoint, and it’s a photo opportunity for visitors, posing as they straddle four states.
At the time of our visit, a rectangle of covered stalls surrounded the point, with the local Navajo selling jewellery and various merchandise.
Those with whom we spoke offered very negative opinions on the way their nation had been treated over the centuries. Their amenities were sparse, and as the wind picked up, it was a reminder of what a desolate place we were in.
Later we visited a trading post, now run by the Navajo, filled with rugs, blankets, guns and some unusual home furnishing items. I took a couple of photographs, but was asked not to.
The last part of the afternoon was spent driving across the Arizona desert for a few hours, on our way to our Flagstaff motel. I encountered my first desert sandstorm, which luckily, was on a long straight stretch of road. It was like driving through fog, where you can just about see the tail lights of the vehicle in front, while you try to maintain the same distance, hoping that the break lights don’t suddenly light up, and to get rear-ended.
Not only is Gallup on Route 66, but back in the 1960’s when John Ford was making his westerns, it was the nearest town with a half-decent hotel for the film crew and actors to stay. We had planned to have our first drink there, but the bar was closed, so we wandered around the El Rancho trying to imagine it’s former glory. There were lots of framed photographs of the movie stars who once stayed there, sometimes for months on end.
Many of the guest reviews were not kind, hence we stayed elsewhere, but even that was not great.
We had a meal and a beer in what was basically a cafe-cum-bar. The food was okay, and we were entertained by an odd middle-aged Indian quartet playing country rock. The experience was quite bizarre, and having driven several hundred miles after only a few hours sleep from the late night in Albuquerque, we walked back to the motel for an early night.
The highlight of Gallup was, without doubt, Aurelia's Diner. This was a really cool place, packed full of 1950’s diner delights. The décor was amazing, surpassing any diner that I’d seen, even the recreations of Universal Studios. From talking to the waitress, it was fairly new, and the owner had travelled the States, collecting the props.
Breakfast was excellent, and we were the only customers. It was hard to believe that we were still in a run down reservation town.
Apart from forgetting to check the car for gas, and crossing our fingers that we made it to the next gas station, the journey back to the airport went well.