Monday, March 17, 2014

Road Trip 2014: The Voyage Home

Day 8

I got a very early start this morning, delivering Alan to the airport around 5am. Coupled with the late night before and the fact the clocks changed for Springtime, this meant none of us got as much sleep as we'd have liked. Hey ho. I returned to the hotel, prised Diane out of bed (OK, she was up already!) and we hit the road. We followed the road back to the Hoover Dam, but this time drove over the bridge instead of down to the visitor centre. A few miles further on, we paused at a pretty viewpoint overlooking Lake Mohave and the Black Canyon.

Two hours down the road, we stopped for coffee. I was fairly dozy and so was Diane. Caffeine-fueled, Diane kept me awake for the next two hours, before we reached the town of Williams, AZ which is on Route 66. Of course, we stopped for souvenirs :-)

The road north out of Williams leads to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. I've been to the West edge before, which was spectacular enough, but the South rim is really special. Between eight and ten miles across at a rough estimate and a mile deep, and one of those things for which the word 'awesome' should really be reserved. Just look at it:

This is a close-up of the bit on the right of the picture above.

On the way up to the Canyon, I was surprised to spot an aviation museum! Yay! On the way back, I wheedled Diane into agreeing to stop there, if only for a few minutes. It was only a _little_ museum... It turned out to be a satellite of Planes of Fame, whose main site is in Chino, CA. I zapped around the museum in ten minutes flat, since we still had a lot of miles to travel and an appointment to keep.

Inside, they had many gems. I always love the Grumman F3-F, it's about as cute as aeroplanes get :-)

Onwards, rode the 600, towards Meteor Crater near Winslow, AZ. (Yes, you can stand on the corner in Winslow, Arizona. No, we didn't.) This is the biggest and best preserved meteor impact site on the Earth. It's about a mile in diameter. We maybe should have visited this _before_ the Grand Canyon, but it was impressive nonetheless!

This is the largest chunk they found of the 45-meter meteor that created the crater. They have a very nice educational museum here.

Another three and a bit hours down the road, we ended up in Phoenix, after driving for about 30 miles down a really large amount of downhill. I've certainly never seen my gas mileage so good! My wagon gets 22 mpg on a good day (US gallons, British readers, don't be too horrified); I saw 24.9 after this.

We checked into a Hampton Inn in Chandler, on the south side of Phoenix, and phoned friend Mark. We met him and his wife in a nearby BJ's Brewhouse for dinner, which was very pleasant. Both Diane and I were glad to get into our beds however, that was another long day on the road.

Day 8: 610 miles

Day 9

Diane and I started separately on this day; she elected to have a little longer in bed, while I went to the nearby Chandler Municipal Airport, to meet friends Jay and Jeff for breakfast. It was good to see them, and we had a very pleasant meal in the airport's excellent diner.

By day, we could see all the plant life in the Phoenix/Chandler area. There were many flowers; spring obviously comes sooner to this area than in Texas. The southern Arizona area is much more lush than the northern end, perhaps unsurprisingly after losing so much altitude. They also have a ton of the giant Saguaro cactus; those big, iconic cacti you see on Western films. These things are everywhere; they grow in forests and each stand around 20 feet tall. We stopped at an RV park to have a closer look at some.

I always thought they were full of bullet holes in the films, but it turns out they have holes in from natural causes; mainly birds making nests in them.

An hour down the dusty desert road, we pitched up at Biosphere2. This is a long running experiment which seeks to learn about the planet we live on (aka Biosphere 1). It was originally designed to be a sealed system, in which lived eight people; four men and four women. They stayed inside for two years, living only on what they grew inside. They could only grow enough coffee beans to have one cup every two weeks. There's no evidence they grew any hops, either ;-) Here's the outside of the main greenhouse:

This is the entranceway, with the pressure door and living quarters in front. Behind are three smaller greenhouses.

Inside the main greenhouse; we're about 2/3 of the way along. Behind us is a rainforest area, below us is ocean, next is a temperate area, and at the end is a Sonoran desert zone. They grew a multitude of different plants, but now the experiments are evolving. There are separators between the zones where they used to be all one, for example, and they're about to change the ocean area to have some islands and new plants, since the original coral reef died.

All this glass means a ton of sunlight getting in, which heats and cools the air. To prevent pressure blowouts, they had a pair of lungs in the system. This is the interior of one of them. It sits under a geodesic dome. When the system is sealed, the central disc rises and falls; surrounded by a rubber diaphragm, with the air pressure. These days, it's held up by vacuum pressure and will fall to a resting position.

We drove on after this; past Pima air museum (sob! I could see hundreds of tails in the distance... another time...) another four hours or so along I-10. We made it as far as Deming, NM, by which time I was knackered again. We weren't going to make it to Las Cruces as we'd envisaged, but that was OK. Deming appeared to be mainly closed (and sadly, their brewpub appeared to be permanently closed), so we ended up eating at the Sonic drive-in next door to the Comfort Inn. Perhaps not the most nutritious of meals (particularly the ice cream) but when in Rome...

Day 9: 337 miles

Day 10

It was an hour's drive from Deming to Las Cruces, which I was definitely glad we hadn't done the night before. Just on the north side of Las Cruces lies the Space Murals Museum. I'd originally put this on the list as a mere curio, thinking it was just a bunch of murals at the roadside. That part was true - they have painted up a water or gas tower (not sure what it is) with space murals right enough. However we were very pleasantly surprised by the museum - there's a ton of interesting information, records and memorabilia from all kinds of NASA missions inside. Up to and including a giant scale model of the ISS that fills half the building.

Next stop was up and over the nearby mountain range, into the plains below where we found the White Sands Missile Range Museum. This is just inside the gates of the White Sands military base; you have to park up and go to the gatehouse and show your ID to get in. Bizarrely, the gate guard presented us with a load of Christian literature. (Really?!) We then went inside the gates to the missiles, of which there are many, fulfilling all kinds of purposes from weather monitoring to nuclear warheads.

I knew from my history that Dr Werner Von Braun had come from Germany to the USA after WW2 and worked as a rocket scientist. I didn't realise, however, just how much his V-2 design had influenced American rockets and missiles. There were many missiles whose plaques told us they were descendants of the V-2 you see preserved here:

Von Braun obviously got around; he had his own personal light twin aircraft, with this plaque on the nose.

Leaving Las Cruces, we headed east into Texas; past El Paso where you can see Mexico from the interstate, and about 40 miles on we came upon the US Border Patrol Checkpoint. For the second time that day, Diane was glad she'd brought her passport for ID, and it was the first time someone had actually asked me for my green card (outside of an airport, anyway). The guard was happy, and we continued westwards, taking the road towards Marfa.

Along this road lies an art installation; Prada Marfa. This is meant to be a high fashion shop in the middle of the desert. They have handbags and shoes inside, laid out as for sale. Sadly, it's been vandalized several times; today there were muddy lumps and paint thrown at the windows; in fact the glass has been replaced with Perspex since the glass was being broken too often.

There was a friendly horse in the field here, who enjoyed some attention and followed us back towards the car.

I swung the Jeep round before we left to take this shot. Had to be done.

We had hoped to get a room in the Hotel Paisano in Marfa that night, but it was fully booked. So here's a picture of the pretty courthouse instead.

Onwards, then, to Alpine; about 30 miles up the road, over another mountain range. We ended up trying about eight different hotels before we could get a room, and the room we did find was the last but one in the Ramada (and possibly the whole of Alpine). It turns out that it is Spring Break, and all the Texas kids are out here on holiday. The Ramada was on the very edge of Alpine, so we ended up eating at the Oriental Express next door rather than going into town. More jasmine tea! Their hotel transport was pretty cool, though:

The sky was lovely and clear, so we headed back up into the mountains after dinner with the camera. I'd spotted a picnic area nestled in a bowl in the landscape, about three miles outside Alpine, which would block any glow from the town. There was half a moon that night which made the sky fairly bright, and painted the landscape with moonlight. I managed to get plenty of stars, though.

Day 10: 374 miles

Day 11

We only had one stop to make on this last day of travelling. Three hours from Alpine took us to Sonora, where they have a show cave. In the parking lot, as Doctor Who appreciators, we were most amused to find this Tardis Chase and Recovery Vehicle, complete with Gallifreyan symbols on the side, Daleks on the dashboard, a Tardis light on top and Dalek/Cyberman kills on the door! We encountered the lady who owned it inside the gift shop; she said she'd been in Austin at the big SXSW festival, and the trailer contained a full size Tardis...

We bought tickets for a guided tour of the cavern, which was to last an hour and three quarters. This was worth every cent and minute; the cave was truly spectacular. I'm just going to let the pictures do the talking here. I tried to include some people for scale otherwise it's hard to know what you're looking at.

This is an 11-million year old cave with active formations everywhere; we had to be sure not to touch anything or it would kill the growth. Here we have a pool, coloured green from copper deposits. It's apparently eleven feet deep although it doesn't look like it.

Stalactites were everywhere; you had to be careful not to hit your head. That said, the trails were easy, although there's about 300 stairs.

These columns are some of the biggest in the cave. They're what happens several million years after a stalactite and stalagmite grow to meet each other.

Almost at the end of the tour, these rocks are near the surface. The cave was originally carved out by water and would have all looked like this, before being coated in all the formations.

After visiting the cave, we continued east, taking 290 off of I-10 towards Fredericksburg. We ended up coming into town on the other side of the fork from which we had left. Three hours after leaving Sonora, we were HOME.

Day 11: 400 miles

Total mileage: 3,427
For my British readers, this is the same (within a few miles) as driving from Land's End to John O'Groats, four times...
A big round of applause for my trusty Jeep! She carried us unfailingly, with vigour, style and comfort.
Hope y'all enjoyed the ride.

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