Jim Colyer at Meteor Crater.
The west is like another country, at times like another planet. Its variety is endless. It can be thought of in terms of its major cities or be approached from the standpoint of its National Parks. The National Park system is an effort by the federal government to help preserve nature's masterpieces. Fees are minimal, geology the theme. The parks are linked by a system of highways and interstates that are the best in the world. America's roads are her greatest achievement. It is all transportation.
Goint west on I-40, the real change takes place in New Mexico. The town of Tucumcari looks as much like Mexico as the United States. But when you think that the southwest belonged to Mexico until 1848, it is easy to understnd Spanish influence there. A few weeks in the southwest will make one see U.S. history from a whole new perspective.
There are some marvelous sights in Arizona. The Painted Desert and Petrified Forest lie side by side. From several vantage point, we gazed out at the colored streaks of sand. We saw Newspaper Rock, a rock covered with Indian Petroglyphs.
Inside the Petrified Forest is a spot called the Crystal Forest. There can not be a more peaceful place on earth. We saw it at sunset. Bits and pieces of petrified wood lay scattered about, and Karen and I felt the sensation of being at the dawn of creation. There were no people for miles on either side of us. The orange sunset, turquoise sky and quiet blended in perfect bliss.
Near Winslow lies the fabulous Meteor Crater. It is a circular hole three miles in circumference. It was created by the impact of a prehistoric meteor. Pictures can not portray its enormity. Astronauts have used the spot as a training ground. Off in the distance stands Mt. Humphreys, the highest point in Arizona.
The Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon is the greatest single phenomenon on the face of the planet! It seems to stand totally out of time. It makes the great literary and musical achievements of mankind seem quite insignificant. During my first visit, I wondered at the amazement of those who first ventured upon it having seen no previous pictures or post cards. They must have doubted their eyes. Indeed, from the rim the Canyon hardly seems real. All sense of distance is defied. The Canyon is a mile deep. It averages 9 miles across, rim to rim, and runs for 217 miles. It is Arizona's pride, and tour buses leave regularly from Flagstaff. The Colorado River cuts through it but looks like a tiny ribbon from above. Geologists speculate that cutting action from the Colorado is what created the Canyon. This was hard to accept at first but after seeing other wonders, I realized that geologists see with different eyes. They are attuned much the way astronomers are. It took 10 million years for the Colorado River to carve the Canyon.
My first visit, I looked over the rim to see a mule train crossing the Canyon floor. The mules looked the size of ants. There are trails leading to the bottom of which Bright Angel Trail is the most famous. People were ascending on foot. They were exhausted.
The second trip, Karen and I saw both the north and souths rims. The north rim is less dramatic, but we caught it at dusk and during a thunderstorm which made it particularly austere. We walked out to a point where the wind was up. The chasm was dark and ominous. We were virtually suspended over the Canyon. The austerity of the scene was enhanced by the lightning in the distance.
We circled the Canyon that night so as to see the south rim in the morning. We slept in the car in Cameron, Utah. We beelined to the south rim at daybreak and caught the sun rising. We were able to take a series of photographs that showed the sun's rays slowly filling the Canyon with light. The great river below seemed to be without movement.
There are many interesting sights surrounding Las Vegas. Old Nevada, a replica of a western mining town, sits at the foot of some very tall and scenic bluffs. There is a petting zoo there and some beautiful peacocks. On the way to Old Nevada is Red Rock Canyon. The blue sky, red sandstone cliffs and green desert landscape merge in silent beauty. Yucca plants prosper. The peacefulness of the scene matches that of the Valley of Fire State Park. In the Valley of Fire, we stopped to look at a petrified log. Again, we were totally alone. I yelled, and my voice echoed off the distant hills. This kind of environment was a contrast and a pleasant change from the turmoil of the city. But it was hot in the valley. At the tourist center, the thermometer read 118 degrees. The twisted rock formations in the Valley of Fire have taken some extraordinary shapes. There are several so-called elephant rocks. One grouping is known as the seven sisters.
When my Greyhound crossed the Hoover Dam in 1978, it was at night, and I could not see anything. I was barely aware of where I was. When Karen and I returned to the spot, we were amazed. The dam captured the imaginations of us both. It was built between 1921 and 1935.
Hoover Dam blocks the Colorado River in its journey from The Grand Canyon to southern California. The lake which formed behind the dam is Lake Mead. It is right in the middle of the desert and complete with beaches. Lake Mead is a beautiful shade of blue.
Sprinting from Kingman, Arizona to Las Vegas, Nevada, you can feel the thrill and enchantment of the city drawing you on. There is an anticipation of something great ahead. Most of the action in Las Vegas can be found in two places, Fremont Street downtown and the newer and sprawling Las Vegas Boulevard. It is a city of lights. It never sleeps. At first, it is hard to believe that such a place could exist, that little old ladies can be seen gambling their hearts out at 6 o'clock in the morning. But there are rows and rows of slot machines, and the gambling is not just limited to casinos and hotels. There are slot machines strategically placed in restaurants and supermarkets as well. I theorized that Las Vegas is essentially a spinoff from southern California and that only the desert could make such liberties possible.
The basic unit on The Strip is the hotel. Driving down Las Vegas Boulevard, one is amazed at the marquees and the famous names. The hotels are like gigantic malls. Inside, there are shops and boutiques of all kinds. Most of the hotels have names that are consistent with the desert atmosphere. There are the Sands, the Desert Inn, the Sahara and the Aladdin. We spent time in all of these.
The most distinctive and appealing of the hotels are Caesar's Palace and Circus Circus. Caesar's Palace at night is a gorgeous shade of green. An escalator carries patrons from the sidewalk to the front entrance as a recorded message provides the welcome, "I, Caesar, welcome you to my Caesar's Palace..." Replicas of famous statues exploit the Roman theme. When we arrived, Ann-Margret was at Caesar's.
Circus Circus is like a never-ending carnival. It features circus acts at intervals through most of the day. There are games and stuffed animal prizes to lure the young and unsuspecting. While we were there, artists worked on a statue of a gorilla in front of the hotel.
All the big hotels have shows, and no one should go to Las Vegas without seeing a couple. They run the gamut from comedy to music to animal acts to burlesque. They are Broadway in their style and are generally for the sexually liberated. We saw two major shows. They were Folies Bergere at The Tropicana and Razzle Dazzle at The Flamingo Hilton. Razzle Dazzle was on ice. It occurred to me that girls in their mid-twenties must flock to Vegas from all around to try to sell their legs.
We lived for a month on Deckow Lane, just down the street from The Tropicana. We were in the Ali Baba Apartments. We both worked a couple of days. I worked for an office equipment place, and Karen worked at The Golden Goose Casino and at the phone company. Actually, you can take away the hotels and casinos and Las Vegas would be like any place else.
The desert is so eerie and yet so compelling. Trees become remembered as eastern vegetation. Brown landscapes become normal. We were most aware of the desert during our journey from Las Vegas to Yosemite. We felt our isolation most keenly when viewing some white sands from a high elevation and thinking it was a body of water. Our car ran short of gas at this point, and we just made it to Big Pine, California. These were perhaps our most apprehensive moments. We were awfully glad when we espied the Sierra Nevada.
The Mojave Desert lies between Las Vegas and southern California. For the most part, it is flat and featureless. Joshua trees are abundant as they are in all southwest states.
Around Barstow, the power of the desert is strong. The presence of Death Valley can be felt. We did not cross the Valley but passing a few miles from it, the heat that hit my face was like a blast from a furnace. The thought of Death Valley instills wariness in the tourist. A temperature of 134 degrees was once recorded there. Death Valley is the lowest place in the United States, 282 feet below sea level.
The mountains of the west present a striking contrast to those of the east. They appear to be sculpted, or chiselled. They are flat on top and treeless. The buttes and mesa are formed from rock, whereas the eastern hills are primarily earth. Paradoxically, there are a lot of flash floods in the desert because water runs off these ridges as off walls and stands on the desert floor.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite lies across the Sierras in California. This is where we spent the night of July 4, 1979. The stars were beautiful as they shone through the Ponderosa pines overhead. We slept that night in a tent.
The mountains of Yosemite are breath-taking. They still had snow on them in July. Karen made a snowball. From above, we satisfied ourselves with the explanation that the valley was carved by glaciers. The scale is a grand one. The one thing all National Parks have in common is a quality of magic. Natural beauty is their offering. They are raw, primeval.
We took several pictures of Yosemite Falls. It is the highest falls in North America. It is divided into upper and lower. We crossed the bridge leading around the lower section.
The second conspicuous attraction is El Capitan. El Capitan is the world's largest exposed mass of granite. It stands 3,000 feet above the valley floor. The park is full of domes owing their shapes to glacial action during the Ice Age.
San Francisco seemed pleasant for such a big city. I stormed the bay area but never saw the Golden Gate Bridge. That was in 1978. I headed for Reno. There I learned the devastating power of gambling. A guy at a street corner told me he had just lost $7000, his life's savings. From Reno, I was going to the Sequoias. I got as far as Carson City and turned back. I played the slots all night in Carson City waiting for a bus. Even then the big trees were exerting their pull.
The following summer, Karen and I saw the Sequoias. We toured three adjacent parks while on an excursion from our base in Las Vegas. We saw our first Sequoia while still in Yosemite. My reaction must have been comical as I lept from the car and ran toward it. Karen said I looked like a little boy. The Mariposa Grove lies inside Yosemite Park. The Wawona Tunnel Tree is in the Mariposa Grove. This is the one they used to drive cars through. It fell in 1969 but still lies there.
Sequoia National Park lies just south of Kings Canyon National Park. We got plenty of exposure to the big trees. There are about 70 groves of Sequoias strung out on the western slopes of the Sierras. The epic proportions and otherworldliness of the trees put them in the same category as The Grand Canyon. Some are as much as 3500 years old. They were living when man's civilization was in its infancy, when King Tut reigned in Egypt. Their age is attributed to a chemical in their sap which resists bacteria. Their bark is soft and spongy an may be from 6 inches to a foot thick. Their crowns are small compared to the rest of the tree. Before the Ice Age, much of North America was covered with Sequoias. Certainly, there is a prehistoric quality about them. Many have been ravaged by lightning and fire, but the older ones are being replaced by younger ones even today. The largest Sequoia is the General Sherman Tree, located in the Giant Forest of Sequoia Park.
My experiences in southern California in both 1978 and 1979 were limited. In 1978, I took a city bus to Hollywood and Vine. I entered the Capitol Records Building and saw gold Beatle records hanging on the walls. On the sidewalk, I saw the Walk of Fame, various celebrities' names inscribed in a series of star patterns.
In July, 1979, Karen and I left Las Vegas for Anaheim and Disneyland. Karen had been to the park in Florida, so she conducted the tour. The rides were thematic. There were Frontierland, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. Disney's secret was in making the most of his knowledge of children's literature. To this, he added his own characters.
Yellowstone National Park
After spending 6 days and nights dozing only on the Greyhound, I finally took a room in Salt Lake City. The next morning, I observed the Mormon Temple, or the temple of The Latter Day Saints. Only Mormons are permitted inside. Salt Lake City is a clean town. It has no slums.
From Salt Lake City, I rode the bus north to Yellowstone, Through the window, I caught a glimpse of The Great Salt Lake. A lady next to me was telling me about the Mormons.
After a few nighttime hours awaiting the bus in Idaho Falls, crossing and recrossing the Snake River, I arrived at Yellowstone ready for the tour. The brightest and most scintillating thing about Yellowstone is its waterfalls. The geysers and hot springs are interesting too. I saw the famous geyser, Old Faithful. It spouts water once every hour, thus its name. The hot springs are bubbly and sulphurous. I spent the night in the tourist town of West Yellowstone, Montana. Yellowstone National Park is in the northwest corner of Wyoming.
Southern Utah and Colorado
The canyons and grotesque bluffs of Zion National Park made the ride through it an exciting one. We were not able to linger longer enough to appreciate it as we would have liked. We hurried to the Coral Pink Sand Dunes. They were 11 miles off the main road. We came close to getting the car stuck in the sand. We kept moving. Our next stop was Kanab, Utah, the town known as Little Hollywood. Many of the old westerns were filmed there.
Southern Utah sports some wierd terrain. The traveller almost expects to be confronted with dinosaurs. It is never dull. We stopped at Four Corners to look at the monument. This is the spot where 4 states touch: Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado. It is the only such place in the nation. People like to say they were in 4 states at once.
Mesa Verde National Park is in southern Colorado. It is in a mountainous area about 20 miles off the highway. There are sites within the park on which ruins of the Cliff Dwellers are found. The best known and the one we investigated is Cliff Palace. It rests on the side of a hill, nestled beneath a rock ledge. The descent is a precipitous one, and the Indians who lived there must have been in good physical condition. It was inhabited between the 7th and 13th centuries. Europe was in its Middle Ages. The circular structures are called kivas and were used for religious purposes. Mesa Verde is Spanish for green table.
From Colorado, the west disappears rapidly. We saw Pike's Peak from a distance and the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Pike's Peak is a mountain 14,110 feet high. It is not unlike the mountains of the east.