From Las Vegas to Denver in one week
17.11.2015 - 01.12.2015
It's mad to think it, but our first leg in North America is very nearly over. We've covered British Columbia, driven all the way down from Vancouver to Los Angeles, and are now on our very last stretch heading inland from Las Vegas to Denver, Colorado. To get there though, there is also the small matter of crossing 5 states in just one week - Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and of course Colorado.
So... Let's start with Las Vegas. How on earth do you begin to describe Las Vegas?? That feeling when you first go to Disneyland or some other such theme park as a child - that's the closest thing I can think of to what it feels like when you first see Vegas. It is a million miles outside of reality, entirely over the top and a complete visual overload. In all honesty it doesn't feel real (and in many ways it isn't). When you drive towards Vegas from the desert, it suddenly rises up out of nowhere, shining so bright you can make out all the famous landmarks from 20 miles away. When you consider the fact that we had just driven from Death Valley where you hardly see one electric light for a good 40 miles, you can imagine what a shock to the system this was! And in all honesty when we walked into our first casino that night, I think we may well have had a slight look of deer caught in headlights.
The thing is about many of these casinos though is that it does feel a bit 'all show, no substance'. They are dazzling on the outside but once you're inside...well they very quickly begin to feel the same. I'm not saying there aren't exceptions. Some of them literally have mini countries built inside of them, complete with canals, giant fountains and fake skylines. But the majority are simply endless windowless rooms, full of slot machines, decorated in the exact same drab colours and to be honest looking a lot like any casino in the UK. Furthermore, once you get past midnight, much of the entertainment stops, leaving people to simply drink and gamble and they become, dare I say it, a little boring and depressing. Admittedly Mark and I probably aren't Las Vegas's ideal clientele - neither of us can play anything more complicated than roulette and 3 months into travelling we're on a one way track to becoming skint. But all the same it wasn't quite the lively, 24 hour party atmosphere we expected!
I should say though, that we did still have a lot of fun. We watched cirque de soleil, won a whole $6 and explored Vegas' original casino area, which had some of the weirdest street artists we have ever seen (if that's what you can call a grown man in a nappy asking for money).
Having had our minds sufficiently messed with, we left Vegas for quieter pastures in the form of Zion National Park in Utah. Zion is a tiny park by US standards, stretching just 15 miles along its main route, but there's a whole lot packed into that space. It follows the bottom of a canyon, but within that canyon you'll find a beautiful river, amazing cliff side views, cool natural tunnels, waterfalls and - don't laugh at us - some genuinely interesting rock formations. After the hell of A-level geography neither of us thought we could ever find rocks interesting or enjoyable, but they were actually pretty cool. The walks were awesome too, carved out the side of rock faces and taking you through caves with little time for health and safety.
From Zion we headed to the biggie in the world of national parks, the Grand Canyon. We'd been advised by a few people in the know that the big secret when visiting the Grand Canyon is to go to the north entrance which receives just 10% of the park's visitors compared to the 90% that head to the south, and best of all, apparently has the better views. Taking this route in the winter comes with its warnings though. The park authorities all but give up on the this side of the park come October , there are zero services and roads can close at any time without warning. For us it was worth the risk though and what we found there was something we never expected to see in the Grand Canyon, lots and lots of snow. I don't mean just a sprinkling, I mean roads covered in ice and snow to the extent that we seriously doubted the ability of our little rental car to get to the end. Both us and the car survived though and we were well rewarded with views on as grand a scale as you could possibly expect.
It's a strange feeling when you first go to the Grand Canyon. It's such an iconic place and so well known that you go along almost knowing what it will look like already. For this reason I found it took a good 5 minutes of simply staring before you really began to take in what you were seeing. Its enormity adds to this further because in one view there is simply so much to see - more detail than can possibly be picked up in a glossy magazine photo. We passed one elderly man who has been sat in the same spot, taking in the view for at least half an hour and you can understand why. You almost need to do that in order to really absorb the scenery. One particularly good view, we really had to battle for. Any other time of the year it would be a simple stroll along a well made path, but when there's snow it turns into a whole different ball game, sliding down paths, clinging to rocks and trying to not think about the enormous fall that would meet you if you did happen to loose your balance. A few cuts and grazes were sustained but they were absolutely worth it.
Thankfully the spectacular views don't end as soon as you leave Grand Canyon national park. In fact, as we journeyed across Arizona we were treated time and time again to some amazing sights. I hate to get back onto rocks, but the rock formations that make up the Arizona landscape really are mental and of a completely different kind of beauty. They're bright red and cut shapes you simply do not see in the uk. We even found some particularly big rocks that people had tried to live in. Then when you contrast these huge red cliffs against the dessert that makes up the rest of Arizona... Well you get some pretty mind blowing scenery.
From Arizona we had 2 days of pretty much solid driving across the breadth of New Mexico and up through the south of Colorado, where I'm sorry to say the most exciting thing we saw was a half naked man getting arrested in our motel (it actually was quite entertaining). At the end though, the Rocky Mountains slowly started to come to view and we finally reached Denver where we would be staying with my cousins for 10 days. The first thing we noticed and had to quickly get used to about Colorado was the cold. It may have been snowing in the Grand Canyon but weirdly it was actually pretty warm. Not so in Colorado. Rarely did it creep above zero and it snowed most days (and I'm not talking a British snowfall here). On the other hand offer me a freezing snowy Colorado day or a grey wet UK day and it's an easy choice!
It was fantastic to be back with my cousins who we'd only seen once since they moved to the USA 5 years ago. We were lucky enough to be there for Thanksgiving too, which was quite the culinary experience! Simon had cooked the turkey in an outdoor smoker, which was pretty awesome but then a neighbour brought round the traditional thanksgiving dish of sweet potato topped with marshmallows to have with the turkey. I kid you not, that is a traditional American dish. Yes we tried it, and no it was not good! I think it must be a bit like the brussel sprout component of a Christmas dinner though because no one seemed to much like it, there was a lot left over at the end yet year on year it continues to get cooked!
The day after thanksgiving, the USA moves immediately into Christmas and the Christmas decorations come out in force. For the Mowat clan, this meant driving two hours into the mountains and chopping down their own Christmas tree. Pretty awesome stuff. What we had completely underestimated though was quite how much snow there would be up there. This was no leisurely walk through the woods, this was wading through 2 feet of near untouched snow, which sucked you in like sinking sand, whilst occasionally pulling out a child before they disappeared completely. For precisely this reason though, it was enormous fun and there is a great feeling of self-satisfaction in knowing you worked hard to get your Christmas tree and didn't just go to Tesco. Knowing we would be spending our Christmas in Costa Rica it was also pretty awesome to be taking part in something so quintessentially Christmassy!
So there ends the western part of our North American trip. We have travelled well over 5,000 miles through a combination of boat, car, bus and campervan and along that journey have seen more truly beautiful scenery than I ever thought was possible. It really has been better than we ever imagined.
Time for adventures anew though as we head to Costa Rica and Nicaragua! Best get working on the Spanish too...