Round the World Walkabout, Episode 10.
We break camp in the Grand Canyon and head south-westwards on a hot tedious drive, hitting “Route 66” where for the first and only time, Manu is allowed to turn up the car radio and broadcast canned cowboy music appropriate to the place (it is all new to my ears).
We browse the shops and buy ice-creams in brash Seligman, the vendors taking the mickey out of the tourists in unashamedly slapstick American fashion. The Home in the Rock is an incredibly naïve attempt to make money out of eccentricity.
Then there is Lake Havasu. Unbearably hot; and old London Bridge, spanning a neck in the lake, there in the middle of a desert. It was purchased unseen and must have cost a fortune to deliver. When the new owner finally “unpacked” it, the story goes, he couldn’t believe his eyes: he’d thought he was buying Tower Bridge. Patches of green grass surround busy sprinklers and there is an attempt at an “English” setting, complete with swans and ducks waiting to be fed (everywhere else, we are adjured NOT to feed the wildlife, for their own good).
Touristy shops line the water front, but the place is dead. Perhaps it’s the heat, or the recent nine-eleven disaster, or merely end-of-season. Hundreds of empty bungalows stand starkly on sandy slopes. Thousands of second-hand cars and boats for sale line the highway.
Just fifteen miles further on we turn into an idyllic campsite. Green spongy grass, a sleepy curve in the Colorado River, and only one other camper in sight. We soon disturb the peace, aided by a couple of noisy jet-skiers. Splashing and playing in the cool waters, we wash our fly-sheets and groundsheets and sit down to a final delicious meal cooked by Jane: risotto this time, followed by blueberry pie, fruit and cream. Let me say at this point that throughout our trip we shared camp duties, (cooking, table-setting, and washing-up), strictly organised by Jane on a “roster” none of us really tried to read or fully understand. But as no less than six people were on duty at a time, the burden was light.
The next day brings an even more tedious drive to Los Angeles. I could have stayed longer in the desert at Joshua Tree National Park, where a coyote posed for us at the roadside amid the strange other-worldly trees, beckoning against the rocks. Try as I might, I cannot spot even one crazy roadrunner (a “common” type of pheasant, the blurb says).
A final stop at “The Travellers’ Tree,” a bizarre sight at the roadside, where hikers hang up their shoes to mark the end of their journey. Manu and Jane do the honours and then pose for a picture.
Then an endless drag along a many-laned highway and a maze of clover-leaves along the vast length of Los Angeles valley. The people of LA, Jane tells us, get panicky when they go to the Grand Canyon because they can’t see the air they’re breathing. Well, we certainly can’t see the hills which she assures us are there to the north. Thick pollution. A city without character. But according to Jane it grows on you more every time you go there.
We dutifully do the city tour of Hollywood, walking the star-studded pavement with cries of recognition as we come across the names of favourite film stars; we gaze at the foot- and hand-prints of the stars of bygone days, captured for ever in the cement; and we drive as slowly as we dare through Beverley Hills, gaping at the residences of the stars. Loitering there is an offence.
Left to our own devices, we wander round the almost empty pavements of Santa Monica before ambling some way along the wide sandy beach and catching the bus back to our hotel.
But America is going to war against terrorists, airlines are cutting back, hotels suffering cancellations, and nobody is feeling at all happy.