Tag Archives: Arizona

London Bridge in Arizona

World Famous London BridgeI can’t even remember when did I hear for the first time the story about the sale and reconstruction of the old London Bridge in the deserts of Arizona. I guess it must have been ages ago, probably soon after I moved to London. Let’s face it, it is one of those fascinating stories which locals love to tell to tourists and newcomers to the city over a pint or two.

So, I was aware that there is a London landmark relocated stateside but that was it, I never really thought much about it. But then, last year, I came across an interesting book about the whole thing. It is called: “London Bridge in America: The Tall Story of a Transatlantic Crossing” by Travis Elborough. Now, the book is a bit hipsterish, but it is also is a fascinating mix of social and architectural history. As I’m mildly obsessed with bridges and civil engineering there was no need to tell me twice about it, and I read it in two days (well, maybe three). But even if you don’t share my weird passion I strongly recommend this book as it is simply fun to read. Then during the planning of our latest American road trip my girlfriend and I realised that we would be passing not far from the current location of London Bridge. As we both share a passion for architecture, history and whacky trivia we just had to go there.

And that’s how we ended up driving across the empty Arizona deserts towards Lake Havasu City about 60 miles south of Kingman. Even though the road crosses scenic but absolutely desolate landscape, we kept passing plenty of trucks hauling boats and other sort of water craft. The reason for all this craft becomes visible a few miles before reaching the city. It is Lake Havasu which was created by damming the Colorado River in 1938. Like many other reservoirs in this part of America it has a stunning location with its deeply blue waters contrasting strikingly with the reds, yellow and browns of the surrounding desert.Lake Hiavasu

For years there wasn’t much activity on the banks of the lake and it was used mostly as a water storage facility for irrigation purposes. Then, in the 1960s, one Robert P. McCulloch bought land on its shore and decided to built a town from scratch. It seems that he was an eccentric fellow and looking for some feature for his new town he came across the old London Bridge which was then marketed for sale by the City of London Corporation. He won the auction and the bridge was dismantled piece by piece, shipped via the Panama Canal and then reassembled on a dusty peninsula on the Lake Havasu. Once completed, the Bridgewater Channel Canal was dredged under the bridge and flooded, separating Pittsburgh Point from the city, creating an island. The bridge opened in 1971 becoming the main marketing icon for the new development.The Bridge

Now, there is an urban legend (popular especially among those sophisticated Brits who are a bit snobbish towards the Americans) that McCulloch though he was buying Tower Bridge instead. But that’s it. It is just a legend. The bridge was always extensively and precisely marketed as London Bridge, with architectural drawings, specifications and even images. So, as much as some would like to believe in it, there wasn’t any con sale to silly American by some clever cockney lad. 

ShoppesSo, how does it all looks now? Well, strange. For one thing the bridge is easy to miss when driving the main road into town, the Arizona Hwy 95. It is one of these featureless suburban highways lined by endless strip malls, big box stores and drive-through businesses. It goes on for miles and miles and it feels quintessentially American. We almost missed the turn, only spotting the bridge on the right at the last moment. Walking from the parking lot to the bridge we had to pass through a really kitschy looking plaza with some London City dragons, a lions-encircled fountain and even a lonely red telephone box which looked particularly out of place with the Arizona Tourist Information Center right behind it.

The bridge itself looks rather splendid with palm lined approaches, azure waters below it and clear blue sky above it. Honestly, writing these words on a windy, rainy, grey and generally miserable day in London, I think the bridge ended up much better off than I did.London Bridge and palms

Anyway, we had a stroll across the bridge and under it enjoying the beautiful day but after 10-15 minutes and taking few dozens pictures, there was nothing else to do there. We found Lake Havasu City one of those strange, completely unremarkable, non-places. If not for the bridge it could be a suburb of Houston, or Dallas or Phoenix or LA. If, unlike us, you are not following strange landmarks there is not much to see there. The main draw for most people here is simply the lake itself. People fish, boat, water ski or simply hit a beach. There is even an aptly named London Bridge Beach which, let me assure you, is way more scenic than the bit of mud you can enjoy in London at a low tide.

Here I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of water, in fact I can’t even swim. So we didn’t linger in town but hit the road again and headed towards Las Vegas, which is much more my cup of tea.

Red Phone BoxStill, overall it was a strangely fascinating place which, regardless of its lack of focus (apart from London Bridge), I found interesting. But then, I do have strange interests. For example I found out that one of the London City churches, St. Mary Aldermanbury, was relocated to Fulton, Missouri.

Guess where I’m planning my next trip… 

Route 66

HackberryLet me start by saying that I never really understood the obsession surrounding the historic U.S. Route 66. It is well known all around the world as one of the America’s icons. You can buy countless books, posters, calendars, magnets and whatever else you can imagine branded with the Route 66 shield.

Somehow I never got too fascinated by it. A couple of years ago I did manage to see and drive some bits of it in Texas and Oklahoma but, to be honest, those stretches didn’t blow my mind away. As I already wrote on this blog, there are so many more interesting and scenic roads in the US. For me the only truly fascinating aspect of this famous route were the small ghost towns along it.

One of them was the town of Texola located on the border of (where else) Texas and Oklahoma which I visited in 2011. With only 36 inhabitants (according to a 2010 census) it was practically a ghost town. Many buildings (including a gas station which once served Route 66) were falling apart or were completely overgrown; usually both. A great photo opportunity, but I seriously wondered where these 36 people lived. It was a fascinating little place but scarcely a reason to specifically follow the Route 66.

So you might find it surprising to learn that during my latest trip to America I actually followed the historic Route 66 for quite long stretches. The reason for that is the simple fact that it was on our route anyway. Basically we had to cross central Arizona along the I-40 corridor which roughly parallels the old Route 66. In fact it in many places it was built right on top of it, completely obliterating the old road.

HolbrookOur first contact with the historic route was in the town of Holbrook, in eastern Arizona, where we stopped overnight after visiting Canyon de Chelly. It is a typical small town which survives by catering mostly to traffic along the interstate. However, there are a few interesting features. One of them is the Historic Navajo County Courthouse and Museum. Built in 1898, the courthouse is now home to the Navajo County Historical Society and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is one of those fascinating small town museums with eclectic and a bit eccentric collections.

The other interesting spot in Holbrook, much more connected to the Mother Road, is the Wigwam Motel. One of only three surviving in the whole US it is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1950 it was based on the original Wigwam Village constructed in 1937 by architect Frank Redford in Cave City in Kentucky. It contains fifteen concrete and steel free-standing teepees which are arranged in a semi-circle around the main office. The teepees are painted white with a red zigzag above the doorway and from the distance they actually look quite realistic. The funny thing is that they named it a Wigwam Motel but they based its design on teepees. I guess the reason for that might be the fact that Wigwam sounds better and is a more recognisable word but teepees look better and most people have them actually in mind when they talk about wigwams. So just to make it clear: wigwams are usually domed, round room dwellings and teepees are the iconic conical tents everyone have in mind when they talk about wigwams. They are completely different things used by different tribes in different regions of America.Wigwam Motel

Anyway, the motel is a great example of the eccentric architecture once common along the Mother Road. Its role was quite simply to attract the passing trade so it was great connection of function and form. I guess that might be part of the attraction of the Route 66, trying to discover these unique buildings, so different from the boring and bland commercial architecture of today. Will anyone, 40 years from now, be driving along the interstates in the search of historic McDonald’s? I doubt it.

From Holbrook we headed west following the modern Interstate 40. Our next stop was the famous Barringer Crater. Now, you must have seen it already. Plenty of TV programmes about astronomy, dinosaurs, geology and many other subjects featured this place at one time or another. I have seen it on quite a few BBC shows, on Polish TV and of course in many Hollywood productions. The reason for that is quite simple: it is a stunning site. Being only about 50,000 years old the crater is well preserved, especially in the arid climate of Arizona. Even if, as I mentioned already, it is highly likely that you have seen it on TV, it is still well worth a visit. The admission price of $16 is quite steep but it includes a quite informative guided tour along the rim. I only wish for it to be a bit longer than the current few hundred meters. It was my second visit to the crater and I would happily go again, there is something magical in seeing how fragile our planet really is. One small piece of rock from space (the meteorite which created this large crater was only about 50m in diameter) can do so much damage.Meteor Crater

From the crater we headed west again. For 120 miles we were ploughing the interstate across the huge landscapes of central Arizona. I love driving interstates. I know, it can get boring, but there is something magical in those big open roads carrying people from across the whole country. Truckers carrying goods, students heading to distant colleges, people moving to new jobs, families on vacations, European travellers like us. For hundreds and thousands of miles, relentless, non-stop movement.

Route 66However, in the town of Seligman, we decided to leave the interstate and follow some of the best surviving stretches of the original Route 66, here called the Arizona Hwy 66. The reason for that is the fact that Route 66 lost is designation as an official US highway when it was replaced by modern roads (mostly the I-40 and I-44) so the state of Arizona cleverly decided to at least keep the number. Judging by the amount of tourist traffic along this stretch of quite a remote road it was a bit of brilliant marketing thinking. Of course it didn’t hurt that the road is actually quite scenic

Still, the biggest draw here are the small towns along the way. In Seligman itself there are quite a few old-school roadside stores selling all sorts of Route 66 paraphernalia as well as food, drinks and snacks. One of them is the famous historic eatery, build in 1953, Delgadillo’s Snow Cap Drive-In. Most of these places allow travellers to put stickers or little notes on the walls. It offers great insight to who is actually passing through this small town (and others along the route). A lot of travellers seem to come from automobile clubs from Europe, especially from Germany. I don’t know why but it seems that Germans love the US. I always meet plenty of them along my travels across the America, especially in the western half of the country. Way more than any other European nation (maybe with the exception of Brits). It is also interesting to see how Asians leave personal business cards pin to the walls rather than stickers. There are thousands of them on the walls of local establishments.

Seligman StoreIf Seligman is small but still viable town serving the traffic on the interstate our next stop, tiny Hackberry, was a real throwback to the old Route 66. Located 60 miles to the west, far from the modern interstate (as here Route 66 diverges quite a lot from the I-40) it is really just a collection of shacks. Its local grocery store and its Conoco station were among the last to close, in 1978, and it became a ghost town. Then, in 1992, artist Bob Waldmire re-opened the Hackberry General Store as a Route 66 tourism information post and souvenir shop on the former grocery store site. At one point, he was the only resident in town. There is a small collection of old vintage cars parked around the store and the place seemed to be booming. It probably helped that during our visit all the national parks in the US were closed due to the federal government shut-down. Folks heading to the Grand Canyon had to find something else to do and it looked like many of them chose driving Route 66.

KingmanWe spent the night in the town of Kingman back on the interstate 40. As we arrived late we stayed in another unremarkable chain motel. Thousands of them line all the interstates. The next morning we realised that the neighbouring property was a cool looking old-school El Trovatore motel which claims to have the world’s longest Route 66 map. Now, I don’t know if that’s true but the map which is running along the whole length of the motel building is quite impressive. A must see for a map geek. Pity we didn’t stay there. While in Kingman we also visited an interesting Route 66 Museum located in renovated historical powerhouse building. The museum depicts the historical evolution of travel along the 35th parallel that became Route 66. Among the displays there are dioramas, murals, vintage clothing and a 1950 Studebaker. But the most interesting aspects of the museum are related to the post-Drought/Depression rush to California, including reproductions of the old photographs showing poverty and desperation of the migrants. Some of the best were taken by Dorothea Lange for the U.S. Farm Security Administration (FSA) investigating living conditions of farm workers and their families in Western states. Among them is the famous Mother of Seven Children, Age Thirty-two, taken in 1936 in California.

West of Kingman Route 66 diverges from the interstate again and becomes Oatman Rd. This is probably one of the most scenic bits of the whole Mother Road as the route climbs to the 3550 feet Sitgreaves Pass, offering great views all around, especially from the scenic pull-off right at the top of the pass.Sitgreaves Pass

A few miles west of the pass is located the small but fascinating town of Oatman. It is one of those places which went through many transformations. It was at some point a gold mining town, a busy Route 66 service centre and a ghost town before becoming a tourist destination. It has undergone an amazing renaissance thanks to burgeoning worldwide interest in the Mother Road. It was clearly visible during our visit with bus-loads of French and German tourists descending upon town. Locals even stage a “shootout” at certain times of day to cater to all the traffic. On one hand it is quite fun but on the other hand it feels quite kitschy and it must be sad when the only way to survive is to become like a Disneyland. Still, the main attraction here are the “wild” burros, which are in fact experienced beggars. The donkeys are descended from pack animals turned loose by early prospectors, and are protected by the US Department of the Interior. In search of food two of them even stuck their heads into our car.Oatman

After a detour to see the London Bridge (yes! more about it the next time) we joined the I-40 and headed to California. We were not planning it but due to missing some turns on the detour along the interstate we found ourselves on one of the remotest stretches of the famous route. It was somewhere between the exit 107 on the I-40 and the US Hwy 95 leading to Las Vegas. Here there were no tacky tourist shops, no fun burger joints, no tour buses, not even cars. Just beautiful Mojave desert, a few ruins (with even fewer standing structures) and post boxes in the middle of nowhere (so, there must be some people living somewhere out there). Add a glorious sunset and you get the picture.

I started this story writing that I didn’t get the whole Route 66 fascination. But I think I’m beginning to understand why people are drawn to it. Well, maybe understanding is a bad word as I can’t explain it, but I think I’m becoming fascinated by it myself. Not yet crazy about it but who knows, I might even decide one day to drive its whole length…Vanishing Point

Heart of the American Southwest

Lush Monument ValleyThis part of the country is as iconic as it gets. Probably most people on the planet have seen images of it either in books or in countless movies, especially the classic westerns. You must have seen them too.

I had visited this region just a few years ago so it was interesting to be back.

You might ask why come back? Well, it is a bit complicated. First, I wanted to show my girlfriend (who is an archaeologist) some of the sites associated with the ancient American cultures, namely the Ancestral Puebloans’ ruins in Mesa Verde National Park. But I also like to come back to some places in general. Somehow while revisiting a particular location I do notice more things. I guess the reason for that is the fact that when you arrive at some very exciting destination for the first time it is easy to be overwhelmed and distracted. It is simply too difficult to take it all in. Somehow, a repeated visit is usually less frenetic, calmer, and it simply lets you notice more. It also allows you to see things in different conditions, for example in different weather.

And that’s precisely what I experienced when we arrived at the famous Monument Valley. Two years ago during my previous trip the weather conditions were challenging, to say the least. It was rainy, it was windy and visibility was not too great. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining, I still loved every moment of the experience, it was just different. This year the weather was perfect. Warm, but not too hot, with beautiful sunshine. We also managed to arrive at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park at the perfect time of day, in the late afternoon not too long before the sunset.Monument Valley

The park is run by the Navajo Nation and welcomes you with an absolutely enormous visitor centre, containing restaurants, gift shops, hotel and a small museum. Don’t linger there too long as it is not really that interesting and it is overrun by tourists from all the tour buses which you will pass on your way there. Give them a wide berth and head straight for the trail. There are viewing terraces right next to the visitor centre but they are full of people with sophisticated cameras mounted on enormous tripods who are trying to take the perfect shot. Hardly any of them walk off the pavement so you will most likely have the trail to yourself. The Wildcat Trail is the only self-guided trail in the park and it runs for 3.2 miles around the West Mitten Butte at approximately 5400 feet elevation. It may take anywhere from 1.5 to 2.0 hours to walk the whole loop. We only walked part of it but it still allowed us to experience the changing vistas as well as get close to the desert environment. And we only saw one more couple on the entire walk. I would highly recommend this hike.

There is a scenic drive but it requires navigating some seriously rough dirt road which is not recommended for regular cars. It is also a definite no-no for any rental vehicle like ours. Alternatively you can experience the park with a native guides, either in 4×4 or on horseback.

From the park we headed north along the US Hwy163, precisely the route I drove in 2011, just the opposite way. It is a truly spectacular drive, one of the American classics, and we drove it at the absolute best time of the day, just before the sunset.Classic Vista

We were thinking about spending the night in some cheap motel in the town of Cortez (another place I have visited before) which is a convenient base for the Mesa Verde. We were still quite a few miles away from it when we spotted the bright lights of the Ute Mountain Casino. As we were getting tired after a long and exciting day we decided to check it out. And it was a great idea.

Ute Mountain CasinoI have to say that the place was one of the best deals during our whole trip. We paid only about $50 for a spacious and nicely appointed room. From my experience similar rooms in non-casino locations would cost probably twice as much, if not more. Once we made ourselves comfy in our room we immediately went back to reception and extended our stay for another night. Basically we decided to make the Ute casino our base and to come back the following night, after visiting the Mesa Verde National Park.

This is one of the parks which concentrates more on historical sights than on the natural ones. I mean the landscape is still spectacular but the real draw here are the ruins of ancient settlements in the canyons rather than cliffs or the canyons themselves. Our itinerary closely resembled my own one from two years previously. We joined the ranger led tours of the Cliff Palace and the Balcony House, precisely as I did two years previously. You can read more about it in my old blog entry here.Balcony House

However here I have to complain about the quality of the guides/rangers. It was nowhere near to those I experienced in 2011. Back then I was really impressed with the eloquent, funny, lively and knowledgeable old rangers. This year we got two university students which were in fact only part time rangers for the summer. Don’t take me wrong, they were lovely but as guides they were hopeless. I don’t want to boast but I have a feeling that I could have run this tour better if I had read a chapter or two from some basic history book. They provided very little information but they were also really unprofessional. They couldn’t control the time and pace of their tours, spending too much time getting stuck in some, not really important, place while trying to catch up later and speeding way too much along the really interesting and impressive bits. At some point I thought I was going to say something but I didn’t want to be rude. I was reminded of why I don’t like guided tours in general. They can be a real hit or miss. Unfortunately in Mesa Verde it is the only way to see the best sites.

Canyon De ChellyAfter a second night in our favourite Ute Mountain Casino, Hotel & Resort we headed south towards the Canyon the Chelly. By now the US government was in total shut-down and the national parks were closed. However we were hoping that Canyon de Chelly National Monument will be open as it is run by the National Park Service but owned by the Navajo Nation. And we were lucky. The visitor centre was indeed closed but the scenic rim drives (which are also access roads for the Navajo families living inside the park) were open. Even better, the only public trail which leads down to the canyon floor was also open. It is called the White House Trail and it descends 600 feet (200m) from the parking area to the White House Ruins. It is a great walk which runs next to some steep drop-offs where it has been carved into the sandstone. If you are afraid of heights, beware! The trail also passes through two fairly short tunnels. Views from the trail are spectacular and the natural sculpturing of the sandstone is also unique and fun to look at.

The bottom of the canyon has quite lush vegetation, even at the end of a long summer. It is due to underground water flowing there even when the river bed is bone dry, like during our visit. Normally the area around the ruins is quite crowded with all the Navajo-run tours as well as Navajo sellers offering their jewellery and other wares. However when we got there it was all quiet and empty. During our stay only one 4×4 arrived with one noisy family. Luckily they took a few pictures and disappeared almost as soon as they arrived. Perfect. I can safely say that Canyon de Chelly was definitely one of the highlights of our trip across the American Southwest.Canyon de Chelly White House Ruins

It is fascinating region well worth repeated visits. It doesn’t matter if it is your first, or second, or even tenth visit, I’m sure you will have fun and find some new fascinating angles to the sites you know as well as discover plenty of new stuff. Places like that are the perfect answer for all those folks who ask me if I’m not getting bored after travelling to the US so much. How can I get bored? Are you kidding me?