Sun was setting as we crossed the state line to New Mexico and a short drive brought us to Leasburg Dam State Park, a secluded section of desert with a handful of primitive camping spots offering perfect stargazing during twilight hours. The following morning we rose early and took a detour through the United State’s main missile range (Trinity Site was the location of the World’s first Atomic Bomb explosion on 16th July 1945) to White Sands National Monument, boasting sparkling white sand dunes amongst the barren desert surroundings of New Mexico.
We reached our desired destination, Albuquerque, home to AMC’s critically acclaimed Breaking Bad, and a small part of me secretly wanted to believe Jesse Pinkman roamed these street corners late at night. In actual fact, at night Albuquerque’s downtown is reminiscent of a scene from the Fast and the Furious; supped up hot rods sporting volatile suspension, hideous paint jobs and super size rims dominate the drag, while hoodlums and fast women line the streets touting their crew alliances with elaborate jewellery and tattoos. Quite the bizarre spectacle to witness first hand on an otherwise uneventful Sunday evening. For our purposes Albuquerque served as gateway to the now Historic Route 66, one of the most well-travelled stretches of road in the United States.
Head west from Albuquerque and the first city of note to arrive in is Gallup, in the heart of Native American land. On this occasion we were fortunate to attend a traditional dance display from nearby Zuni Indians at Gallup’s quaint downtown square. We also decided to take advantage of the plentiful Mexican cuisine on offer in this part of the country at El Sombrero Restaurant. We dined on plates of bean burritos topped with copious amounts of green chilli and cheese, rellenos (whole green poblano chilies stuffed with queso Chihuahua, egg battered and deep-fried, then smothered with a rich tomato sauce spiked with chilli and served with refried beans, Mexican rice and an overly generous amount of house made guacamole. Everything was delicious and wholesome without any one particular flavour dominating. The mountain of guacamole and house-made red salsa (spicy and fresh) that accompanied our basket of complimentary white corn tortilla chips were particular highlights. Leaving Gallup we passed the historic El Rancho Hotel, serving as a haven for Hollywood (including Katherine Hepburn, Kirk Douglas and Wild West legend John Wayne) since 1937.
Pushing west we crossed into Arizona, home to one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the Grand Canyon. Arizona’s rugged desert landscape is not dissimilar to that experienced in New Mexico and west Texas, although the population of towering eight-foot plus cactus increases dramatically. Our first stop brought us to Petrified Forest National Park in Navajo and Apache land. Fossilised fallen trees that lived in the Late Triassic (about 225 million years ago) are the main attraction as well as petroglyphs from early human inhabitants of the area, dating back to around 8,000 years ago. During the Late Triassic, downed trees accumulating in river channels and were buried by sediment containing volcanic ash. Groundwater dissolved silica (silicon dioxide) from the ash and carried it into the logs, where it formed quartz crystals that gradually replaced the organic matter. Stunning.
Travelling further west along this stretch of Route 66 we passed through Holbrook, a relatively unassuming city if not for the fact it has one of the most unique motels in America, the Wigwam Motel. Those fortunate to stay at the motel find their lodging within mock wigwam structures, complete with classic 1950’s cars out front. Wigwam Motel epitomise everything that Route 66 once stood for, freedom of expression without fear to dream.
Arizona’s landscape begins to change dramatically as Route 66 winds into the Coconino National Forest. Elevation reaches 5,000 feet above sea level and the desert gives way to lush green fields and sprawling pine forests, complete with crystal clear rivers running from the Colorado River. The largest city in this region is the laid back Flagstaff, playing host to a thriving ski season during winter months and becoming a tourist free, relaxing getaway during warmer seasons. Route 66 cuts directly through Flagstaff and because of this classic motels complete with retro neon signs line this stretch of highway leading to downtown and the famous Museum Club, that played host to bands travelling through this part of America in the 1960’s. It was in Flagstaff that we visited Flagstaff Brewing Company, an establishment focused on brewing numerous craft beers at their in-house brewery. We paired our pints of Pale Ale with a Greek salad and the curious sounding Stink Burger (half pound of freshly ground chuck steak, cooked medium rare and topped with a whole head of slow roasted garlic cloves, crisp onion rings and swiss cheese). The sweet yet savoury garlic complemented the fatty beef perfectly. Unadulterated garlic love, comparable to sandwiching a juicy beef patty between two slices of garlic bread. Something I intend to replicate once back in my own kitchen.
Before pushing on the following morning we made a breakfast pit stop at Galaxy Dinner, a classic American dinner frozen in the 1950’s. Galaxy Dinner’s interior is kited out with breakfast bar and high stools, a number of booths with faux red leather seats, large glass windows, a jukebox heavy with Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton, and walls filled with celebrity head shots. Dinner nostalgia is also apparent in Galaxy’s menu of breakfast pancakes, numerous hamburger options and rotating sweet pie specials. The attentive waitresses at this slice of American nostalgia will ensure you drink a weeks worth of coffee in one sitting, and the no frills cooking will bring a smile to your face. I never imagined ordering eggs ‘sunny-side up’ could bring so much pleasure.
It was at this point we deviated south off our route to the Grand Canyon for the city of Phoenix. Not for the sweltering 110 degree desert temperatures but instead to see all time favourite band Fleetwood Mac in concert. Our airbnb host was located in the heart of downtown making trips to central locations a breeze. After the calorie rich travels of west Texas we decided to take advantage of the thriving Vietnamese community in Phoenix and headed to Pho Thanh for some of the best pho tai nam (sliced beef and brisket) I have ever had the pleasure of eating. So good in fact that a return visit was made the very next day for another steaming bowl.
Followers of this blog will know that I’m partial to a burger, actually that’s quite the understatement, I love the humble hamburger, and it was in Phoenix that I learnt of a relative newbie (the first opened in Washington DC in 1986) on the American fast food scene, Five Guys Burgers and Fries. Five Guys uses nothing but fresh ground beef (there are no freezers in any Five Guys restaurant) to form their patties, which are cooked to order and if you request your cheeseburger ‘all the way’ it will come dressed with lettuce, fresh tomato, grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, sliced pickles, mayonnaise, mustard and relish. Burgers at Five Guys are truly delicious and the overly generous dressings and toppings really make this a standout in the fast food industry. I found an ‘all the way’ Little Cheeseburger (weighing in at 6oz before fixings, while a regular cheeseburger weighs in around the 10oz mark) ample pre-gig eating, and if you’re still not convinced, giant boxes of complimentary monkey nuts await you in each restaurant to advertise the fact that Five Guys proudly only use peanut oil to cook their fries and burgers. The little things in life really do make all the difference. At the time of writing Five Guys have announced their first UK location in the heart of London’s Covent Garden (1-3 Long Acre, London WC2E 9BD) so go grab yourself a Little Cheeseburger and a basket of monkey nuts!
Backtracking isn’t something we’re fond of doing but on this occasion we made an exception and travelled back to Flagstaff to embark on our journey to the Grand Canyon. At 227 miles in length, up to 18 miles wide and deeper (just over a mile) than the Empire State Building is tall, it’s impossible not to be impressed when you first set your eyes on this force of nature. Both south and north rims offer breath-taking views of the canyon and the journey between the two rims is a colossal 215 miles on wheels. Driving to the distinctly quieter north rim will take you along winding roads through pine wood forest that eventually give way to sprawling lush meadows occupied by packs of bison and the occasional kit fox with distinctive striking blue/grey coats. Trails from either rim descend 8,000 feet to the canyon floor where temperatures rocket to 100 Fahrenheit. Believe me trekking down is the easy part, getting back to the rim is a very different story.
North rim is a stones throw from the state line of Utah and on our fleeting visit we drove up into the red mountains of Bryce Canyon. This beautiful setting is unlike anything I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing and we made full advantage of our limited time by trekking nine miles of trails that took us through twisting desert, red sand hoodoos (odd-shaped pillars of rock left standing from the forces of erosion) and to elevated vista points. We were recommended by other travels at Big Bend National Park to make a detour to encompass Bryce Canyon and boy we weren’t sorry for listening, our only regret was the limited time we had to experience this enchanting place.
The reason for our short stop in Utah, our hotel reservation at the legendary Flamingo in the heart of Sin City. In late 1945, mobster Bugsy Siegel came to Las Vegas, after the fledgling resort city piqued Siegel’s interest due to its legalized gambling and its off-track betting. Siegel began by purchasing the El Cortez on Fremont Street for $600,000. His expansion plans were hampered by unfriendly city officials aware of his criminal background, so Siegel began looking for a site outside the city limits. And so the Flamingo Hotel & Casino was born on 26th December 1946, at a total cost of $6 million. Billed as the world’s most luxurious hotel, the 105-room property and first luxury hotel on The Strip, was built seven miles from Downtown Las Vegas.
What can I tell you about Las Vegas other than what you already know from Hollywood. Sparkling neon lights, over-the-top cabaret shows, eccentric locals, packs of bewildered tourists… chaos around every corner. Vegas is like Marmite, you’ll either love it or hate it. I happen to fall in the love category. Highlights included strolling The Strip and casinos at night while marvelling at the various “freaks” on display, Fremont Street (or better known as Downtown Las Vegas) where you’ll find a more authentic Vegas experience with casinos offering slightly more favourable odds on the playing tables, and free drinks, yes FREE drinking comes as part of the deal in Vegas. Just sit at a table or slot machine, play for a minute and next second a waitress will be asking for your drinks order. Okay, if you want the Old Fashions to keep flowing you need to tip a dollar for every time the attentive waitress brings you your cocktail. Not so shabby, although drunk gambling can lead to shame spirals.
Vegas is not just about the casinos, you can also find some fantastic food to keep you fulled all night long. Monta Ramen in the Asian district of Vegas serves authentic Krume-style Japanese fare at reasonable prices. On our lunch trip we started with Gyoza (handmade pork and vegetable dumplings that are gently boiled before being pan-fried to give a crisp exterior yet moist, tender interior), as well as huge bowls of Tonkotsu Ramen (cloudy white broth made from boiling pork bones, fat, and collagen over high heat for many hours, which leaves the broth with a hearty porkflavor and a creamy consistency that rivals milk or melted butter/gravy) with hand-made udon noodles, spring onions, slices of chashu pork, bamboo shoots, kikurage mushroom and nitamago (seasoned hard boiled egg). I’m a huge fan of ramen, the pork broth is beyond addictive; creamy, savoury, salty and rich. For all you Londoners that have never tried ramen then get yourself to Bone Daddies in the heart of Soho for a bowl of Tantanmen ramen.
If you’ve after meat then there are plenty of options. Every casino offers some for of buffet or steakhouse, or perhaps the Heart Attack Grill for an Octuple Bypass Burger; four half pound burgers, eight slices of cheese and sixteen slices of bacon (1.444kg packing a whopping 9,982 calories), oh and the bun is layered in lard. The name might have started jokingly, but people have actually had heart attacks eating here. I didn’t fancy testing out my health insurance so instead opted for the Prime Rib Steak at El Cortez, an 8oz steak cooked to your liking and served swimming in a plate of delicious beef jus. Not only does this mammoth slab of beef come with potato frits (posh french fries) and vegetables of the day (on this occasion petit pois peas), but also a garden salad and soup du jour (chicken and chorizo gumbo). Now here comes the best part, this very satisfying dinner will set you back a mere $8. Winner, winner, chicken dinner. Apologies for the lack of focus on the photo below, we were slightly inebriated and eager to tuck into our meals!
Another worthy pit stop when you’re in Vegas is the Neon Museum, a collection of salvaged and refurbished neon signs from Vegas’ past, saved from the junk yard and put on display for the public in what’s know as the “neon graveyard”. Neon Museum is way downtown, so much so you need to take a cab from Fremont Street (which is already a distance from the normal Las Vegas Strip action) just to find the place. If you’re going to make the trouble of visiting Neon Museum then be sure to visit Fremont Street and the original Vegas casinos like Golden Nugget, Four Queens and El Cortez. These are institutions in Vegas history that shouldn’t be missed on any trip to Sin City.
You can easily outstay your welcome in a city like Las Vegas, and we knew it. Time to move on. Less than an hours drive east and we arrive at the Hoover Dam, a gravity dam, meaning its foundation relies on gravity to keep the entire structure from collapsing. In fact, the technical name for this structural wonder is actually concrete arch-gravity retaining wall. Hoover Dam was the most expensive engineering project in U.S. history at the time of its construction between 1931 and 1935, costing $49 million. Hoover Dam rises 726 feet and is 1200 feet wide at its crest. The base of the dam is 660 feet thick, and it took 91.8 billion cubic feet of concrete to create a retaining wall that weights an estimated 6.6 million tons. Hoover Dam was built for several purposes, controlling floods and silt as well as irrigation. The primary purpose of the dam, however, is to generate electricity. Today, the electric generating plant has 17 turbines that can produce four billion kilowatts of electricity per year. Proving the power needs for over a million people living in the Southwestern United States. Hoover Dam is as impressive in architectural structure as it is in numbers.
The building of Hoover Dam created the largest manmade reservoir in the United States. Lake Mead is 110 miles long and provides 550 miles of coastline with a depth of 590 feet at its deepest. Lake Mead boasts excellent outdoor recreation for tourists and locals alike with sport fishing, jet-skiing, kayaking and swimming spots. Several dirt roads wind through the dramatic desert scenery of Lake Mead; towering stark mountains, plateaus, desert basins of cacti, and vertical-walled canyons are some of the sights on offer.
After a couple of nights away from the lures of Las Vegas at Lake Mead we were ready to make our final push west, crossing the state border into The Golden State, better knows as California. Over 8,000 miles travelled in just over four months and we had made it to the west coast, the promised land, and the beginning of our summer of sunshine, starting in the city of San Diego.