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Tales from the road - Houston to Phoenix
April 2012

  Stayed at:

Road tweets

1934 miles in eight days driving; seven hotels. Fly to Houston; drive to Phoenix and fly back to Dubai from LAX.

Our pictures from the trip are here.

Tuesday April 24th

Up at 6.15 am for a quick and very average breakfast and to catch the bus to LAX's Tom Bradley international terminal for EK218 to Dubai.

We are taking such a northerly route that we had maybe just two hours of darkness today - the flight of the midnight sun....by the end of June this whole flight will be in daylight.

A light load on the flight - bad news for the accountants at Emirates but good news for the passengers. 15 and 1/2 hours later and we are landing on 30L in Dubai.

I forgot to mention the joys of LAX security - good job it was a light load - it could take forever otherwise.

First the passport check - where someone who reads very slowly compares your name to the name of your boarding pass and ticks the card to show that he can read.

Then, as usual with the TSA remove everything; then into the screening device - hands above heads. Collect bags. Get dressed again.

But there is more to come. Down the walkway to the airplane just before you board are a bunch of security people; was not sure if they are TSA or police who want to check your passport and the stub of your boarding pass. "I would like to talk to you" said an officer to the guy behind me. It was an instruction, not an invitation. And then there was the hungry looking alsation dog that was the final obstacle to be passed - "pass the dog on it's right hand side" we were told. It must have enjoyed the smell of the chicken teriyaki lunch that was in Tai's bag.

It does make you wonder of this is all really necessary or is a massive job creation scheme. What did this have to do with US Home Security - after all we were leaving?

This is all still a reaction to events of over 10 years ago. One of the airline fees charged by Southwest is even called a September 11th fee. Realistically the next terrorist attack (and there will inevitably be one one day) will not be against an airplane or airport. There are many softer and easier targets that are not protected with the same excessive zeal as the US airports.

If you travel around Asia or the Middle East you will not see this level of security; although there are additional security checks for flights to the USA.

Maybe it makes Americans feel more secure. But to me it just looks expensive and inevitably that gets passed onto the traveler.

Monday April 23rd

A long drive again today. Starting out from Grand Canyon Village at about 9am - with a short stop at MacDonalds in Tusayan; then through Valle and Williams and back onto the I-40 to Flagstaff.

From Flagstaff we drive through Oak Creek Canyon to Sedona and then the I-17 down to Phoenix.

Now this all sounds easy but it is a bit stressful when your fuel tank is showing empty and you are in the middle of Oak Creek Canyon.

This should never happen but I was convinced that there would be a gas station at the exit of I-40 in Flagstaff. Trouble is there was not - and it was another 24 miles through to Sedona. I-89A is also a slow road to drive as everyone crawls along the road to admire the view along the way.

I turned the AC off and tried to conserve as much gas as possible. We were fine in the end - and I am curious how much further we would have been able to go before we ran out of fuel.

It was genuinely hot in the valley and in Sedona - over 90F. It was over 100F in Phoenix yesterday.

We stopped for lunch - there was an outlet mall just off the I-17 - apparently in a town called Anthem. But there was little to sing about. Another stop in North Phoenix was required after Tai saw another WalMart. The WalMart tour of the USA - that was the third in a week. But the cashier was friendly - he had escaped from Illinois - though he had no idea where Dubai was.

The I-17 is a decent road to drive; a bit more interesting than many - though traffic was quite busy and watching a guy hurtle by us texting on his phone and doing at least 95mph was a little alarming!

Dropped the car at the Car Rental centre near to Phoenix airport. We had completed 1,934 miles. I have to confess that I liked the Sonata - it was a good touring car - spacious, easy to drive and the satellite radio and i-pod connections help to pass the time.

Then on Southwest Airlines from Phoenix to LAX.

Time for a rant. Air travel in the USA is truly a miserable experience. You basically have to check yourself in while grouchy ground staff comment on your bag tags. Do not lock your bags - as you can be sure that it is your bag that some minimum wage TSA staffer will be ransacking in the name of security. So nice that they leave a note in your bag saying that you were privileged to be selected for a full bag check.

Then to security. Computers out. Nothing (nothing, nothing, nothing at all) in your pockets; shoes off, belt off. Stand here and put your hands over your head while you are x-rayed. Are those machines really safe? And what is it that the TSA people (there are so many of them) can really see.

Then to the gate. It is like waiting in a greyhound bus terminal. Stand in line by your boarding number. Get two seats together at the very back. Not a spare seat on this 737. But we left in time and got there safely. So I should not grumble too much.

I am not convinced by these jokey Southwest safety announcements. Crashing, landing on water, depressurization are not laughing matters; and if the crew do not take it seriously why should the passengers?

And crew in shorts? With legs like oak trees. No thanks.

Anyway, into LAX - bus to the La Quinta hotel. What a dump that was. Convenient for the airport. While rooms appear to have been renovated attitudes have not been.

As we entered the room the lights were on, the tv was on, the bed and bathroom were not made up. It looked as though the room was still occupied. Which says very little about security and safety.

So back to the lobby and given a new room and a small discount "for the inconvenience." I should have protested more. It was very poor.

There really is nowhere to eat within walking distance except a Taco Bell and a MacDonalds. But there is a gas station - so a bottle of wine from the gas station and some chicken strips and salad from MacDonalds and we had a takeaway dinner.

Sunday April 22nd

Eek. Up at 3.00am. The Lyrid meteor shower was expected to peak between 3am and 4am. On with the winter jacket and scarf. And back to GrandView Point. There were a couple of cars that appear to have over-nighted there with sleeping passengers. But no one else was out meteor hunting. It was not so much a meteor shower as a meteor dribble. But we saw a few in the north east sky - blink and you would miss them.

So we slept in the car for about 45 minutes setting a 5.15 wake up. And at 5.15 the sky was just starting to turn cobalt blue instead of black. And as I stood at the lookout a meteor fell to the north; a short bright streak of light against a dark blue background. Magical.

We went back to our favorite rock and waited for the sun to rise. The sky turning from dark blue to orange; the clouds from grey to glowing red. And another day began.

At which point Tai decided it was time for sunrise yoga standing on the rocks with the canyon behind. Who needs Hollywood when nature can create its own very special picture.

We were back at the lodge before 7am for breakfast following by a few hours of sleep.

We then took the Canyon shuttle bus out west on the Hermits Rest route - no cars are allowed here so this is the only way to head to the west side of the south rim. We got off and walked the rim trail for a few kilometers; every view is different. And then returned from Hermits Rest to Powell Point for another sunset. It was cooler tonight with more threatening cloud. The sunset might be best watched at Pima Point - but beware; it gets very busy there.

Perhaps the biggest issue that the Canyon has to deal with especially at the weekends are the sheer number of people. And too many people show too little respect for where they are. Something this awe inspiring deserves reverence and respect - not shouting and yelling at friends and family and fighting for the best camera view. Too much. Find a quiet place. Sit there and enjoy the silence of the canyon.

Saturday April 21st

Breakfast in the Comfort Inn. The lounge is very odd. It is more like a north western hunting lodge with a stuffed moose head above the fireplace.

And just fyi - the machine that says strawberry is not dispensing milk shakes - it is a waffle mix and it tastes awful raw!

I like Flagstaff. If feels like a prosperous, small and happy town. It could be a town that is just a pass through on the way to the Grand Canyon but it is more than that. It has a lively, restored, old town; and it is pleasantly green. In fact the city feels like it should be in the Pacific north west with large pine woods.

While you are in the old town do visit Shane Knight's photography gallery. Self taught and shooting on film Mr. Knight makes inspired pictures of the SouthWest's scenery and light.

We had a walk around downtown; of course Route 66 passed through Flagstaff and that is widely celebrated in gift shops and memorabilia. And there are a number of old motels and diners that look part of the Route 66 folklore. Then there is the Flagstaff Mall - anchored by Dillards and JC Penney - but honestly - best avoided. It is very uninteresting.

We headed up route 180 towards Valle and the Grand Canyon. Valle is basically a road junction with an Indian gift store and a gas station. But, and it is a huge but, it is also home to a branch of the Planes of Fame Museum at the Valle airport.

This is a fun place. The hangar includes some 30 planes; some of which are in flying condition. There is a Douglas Invader, a Messerschmitt Bf 109, a Mig 15,  And outside the hangar are three planes including a Martin 404, a Convair 240and best of all the Lockheed Constellation that was for a time General MacArthur's private airplane and which has been refurnished to his original specification. The plane last flew in 1995 although museum crews do fire up the engines each year. With investment this airplane could fly again. And it is a beautiful looking airplane.

The staff at the museum are true enthusiasts; they love their airplanes and they love their museum and they will talk about airplanes all day if you have the time.

Larry took us on a tour of the Connie - you need to see inside the airplane if only for a classic 1950s art deco toaster - beautiful. And a full four ring electric stove in the galley. The Constellation was heavily influenced by Howard Hughes and it is sad how few are still airworthy. The biggest issue (other than cash!) is finding flight engineers who are qualified to work on this airplane - the crew compliment was 5, captain, first officer, second officer, flight engineer and radio operator/navigator.

If you are heading to the Grand Canyon do stop here and say hallo.

So onto the Grand Canyon - about 45 minutes beyond Valle. And to our room at the Maswick Lodge. It is ok accommodation; no internet and no mobile phone signal. Probably a good thing. We were not there to stay in the room. We started with the view at the Visitor Center; but it was crowded and noisy. So we drove out to GrandView point on the Desert View road for the sunset. Found a rock to sit on and spent an hour watching the Canyon change colour as the sun set.

Dinner in the Maswick cafeteria; the food is ok; the prices are reasonable. And then out to Yavapai point to look at the stars. It was a perfectly clear night; dark; there was no moon. And there were no other people there. So we lay on the rocks and looked at the skies. There really is nothing better.

Friday April 20th

Happy birthday to Alex.

Woke at 2.02am and 5.12am - another long drive today to get over to Flagstaff.

And it was a long drive ! The first stop was just south of Santa Fe where the one year old premium outlet mall got Tai's attention.

Then down through Albuquerque and onto the I-40 which heads west across to Los Angeles. The I-40 replaced much of the old and historic route 66. We stopped in Gallup for lunch at the famous El Rancho Hotel.

The El Rancho was opened in 1937 - built by the brother of movie magnate DW Griffiths. This was where the movie stars stayed to make the old westerns that were shot around the city in the 1940s and 1950s - there are pictures of Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, Jane Wyman, Allan Ladd, Jackie Cooper, William Holden and many more.

The town is on the old Route 66 - in the heart of Indian country - Navajo, Zuni and Hopi.

This is also a Spanish town - where the Spanish and Mexicans settled and traded with the Indian communities. In the hotel it is Spanish that you will hear the staff all speaking. The restaurant is a great place to stop for lunch and the staff are happy for you to explore the balconied lobby.

It is remarkable country to drive across - huge open plains and red rocky outcrops. This is Indian land - and it is a little sad to think how these indigenous people were driven from their lands and their lifestyles into reservations. Now they operate tourist shops and casinos along the highway.

This is also a truckers road with more trucks than cars.

Flagstaff then comes as a surprise - suddenly the desert landscape is gone and you have trees and green pastures and large homes.

The city has been revitalised by the University of Northern Arizona - and old downtown is now a mix of fashionable restaurants, bars and stores. It would be nice to stop for longer.

Dinner at Dara Thai restaurant - decent food. But it closed at 9pm so felt like we were being rushed out.

Thursday April 19th

Woke at 12.15am, 4.22am and 5.30am. A good meal, a bottle of red and high altitude may not have been a good mix!

Breakfast at the hotel and then back on the road for the round trip drive to Taos. Out on the high road - described as unmissable in the guide books. Back on the lower road that winds alongside the Rio Grande and is a faster ride back to Santa Fe.

Up on the high road there was still a little snow by the road side. It is easy to forget that you are at over 10,000 feet. And you can feel the altitude. The best solution is to drink lots of water and stay hydrated.

The folks in the Taos visitors center are very friendly and will give you lots of good advice.

A walk around the plaza - simpler and less gentrified than Santa Fe. Lunch in a cafe on Bent Street. Very enthusiastic staff do not make up for food and coffee that are served less than lukewarm.

Tai made her second pilgrimage of the week to Walmart. So she was happy.

Back in Santa Fe we walked into town as the sun was going down and you can see how the late evening light glows over the city. But it was quiet in town - and we went and had a good dinner at a sushi place - pleasantly popular with local residents rather than visitors.

Wednesday April 18th

Up in the morning for a visit to Roswell's UFO Museum and Research Centre. Honestly it is a waste of $5 - but if you go to Roswell you really do have to go there. You would find more relevant, more recent, and better researched UFO material simply using google!

The museum is housed in Roswell's old cinema. The mocked up aliens have more life than the staff working there.

The exhibits are basically old newspaper cuttings framed and stuck on the wall. That and a few models of aliens; and of course any alien will have two eyes, two arms, two legs etc.

It looks like a poorly executed school project.

The most recent addition to the exhibits is from some time in the 1960s; if an alien did visit they would think we are pretty inept.

There is a gift shop. Don't bother!

But Roswell markets itself as the UFO centre of North America. There is a large UFO convention every independence day. The city streetlights are painted as UFOs. Shops and hotels state that Aliens are Welcome. It is very clever; and Roswell would likely be a ghost town without the influx of the curious and the true believers.

Onwards. And up the dreaded I-285 again but this time with a detour onto the nearly empty State 20 through Fort Sumner to Santa Rosa. Why Santa Rosa - it was one of the stops on the old Route 66 and there are still some old signs and buildings from the late 1950s. Including the very average Tex/Mex that we had lunch in. The seats and tables had not changed for 50 years !

Santa Rosa onto Santa Few via the I-40 and back on the I-285.

I have been to Santa Fe before but that was twelve years ago and I really do not remember it at all. Outside of the old plaza area the city has expanded dramatically.

We did treat ourselves to our first proper meal of the trip - Andiamo - a very nice Italian restaurant close to the hotel - good food and a bottle of red.

And of course the opportunity to listen to Americans talking too loudly - there were two older well to do couples at one table - visiting from Florida - talking about their travels - I have no interest in ever going to China says one guy - his partner chips in - my friend came back from there saying the food was disgusting and the place was so dirty - welcome folks to a world that is changing and where the USA's importance is going to be very secondary.

Hotel is ok. But we are on the ground floor and the guy above us clomps around his room.

Tuesday April 17th

Woke again at midnight feeling terrible. Took aspirin. Eventually slept a bit longer.

And this was out longest day on the road - almost 9 hours with a few stops along the way.

It was a lovely sunny morning; cool and clear; drove along I-290 from Fredericksburg to the I-10. Such an easy drive - very little traffic. MacDonalds breakfast stop - I have no idea where we were - just off the highway. Then through to Fort Stockon where we stopped for lunch.

Desperately searching her i-phone for Asian food Tai found Dragon Chinese buffet - programmed it into the GPS and easy to find.

Our waitress was from Chongqing - why does anyone move from there to Fort Stockton?

Fort Stockton is one of those places where you wonder why anyone would like there. As Tai asked - where would you go for a date?

The town acts as a centre for oil drilling and production from Pecos county and the oil pumps are very visible across the plain.

It is also an old Western town with a fort built to try and offer protection from Comanche and Apache Indians and later fought over in the American Civil War.

The fort is a little unconvincing as Tai managed to confuse it for the public library.

And then onto the I-285 - this has to be the dullest road ever made - undeviatingly straight though some of the dullest countryside ever. Here is the good news about our car rental - it has satellite radio and an i-pod connnection.

The GPS is a must as well.

The I-285 gets a little more interesting after crossing from Texas to New Mexico - our first Walmart stop of the trip was at Carlsbad.

Eventually we made in to Roswell. Via a stop at the Roswell International Air Centre. This is one of the aviation boneyards that are scattered across New Mexico and California. They are rather sad places - there were even a couple of JAL 747-400s there which must have been recently retired. It was hard to take pictures in part due to all the security fences and in part due to Tai worrying about whether we were doing something illegal.

Found our hotel - pleasantly welcoming. And out for dinner at a restaurant called Peppers - nothing special. The decoration is drab and tired. The salmon caesar salad had lettuce that was so tired you could hear it snoring. And this place was recommended.

To add to the jet lag New Mexico is an hour behind Texas.

Monday April 16th

Jet lag hurts - awake at midnight....after just three hours sleep.

Bed by 9pm is OK - waking up at midnight hurts. And then waking again at 2am - and staying awake.

So early breakfast and on our way to Austin, the state capital of Texas and one of the fastest growing cities in the USA. It used to be the home of artists, writers, programmers and assorted unusual people who enjoyed its relaxed lifestyle and open minded ways.

Not now - it is full of lawyers and merchant bankers. new suburbs are being built all around the city. Golf courses are everywhere. Suits are worn around downtown. New highways have turned the city into gridlock.

The state capital is impressive in an austere, Victorian way. And the public get remarkable access to the building and many of the working areas - even the canteen.

But downtown in the early afternoon is quiet. The Austin vibe may come out at night but not on a muggy April afternoon.

So we left in a hurry; a few hours to walk around seemed enough. And we still had nearl ytwo hours drive to get to Fredericksburg. This is a town in the Texas hill country that has been at the heart of the German settlement of Texas since the late 1800s. And the German influence is still very apparent - sausage shops and beer halls.

We found a great place to stay - the Hangar Hotel at the Gillespie County Airport about 2 miles south of Fredericksburg.


Based on Fredericksburg’s early aviation and rich military past, the hotel is a recreation of an old WWII military hangar. The hotel fronts the airport apron and landings, take-offs and air traffic can be viewed from the hotel observation deck.

The décor and furniture of the all the guest rooms are of the WWII period.

Sadly the diner is not open on Mondays and Tuesdays and the bar is only open at weekends.

So back into town for dinner at K-Bob - really not so OK Bob. Just average Bob. Friendly staff don't make up for badly cooked food.

Why did the Germans settle around Fredericksburg. It is very much white persons' Texas -the town was founded in 1846 and named after Prince Frederick of Prussia. Old-time German residents often referred to Fredericksburg as Fritztown, a nickname that is still used in some businesses. The town is also notable as the home of Texas German, a dialect spoken by the first generations of German settlers who initially refused to learn English. There is a more detailed history on wikipedia.

Sunday April 15th

Checking in at the US departures area of Dubai's terminal three was unusually chaotic. There are a number of flights all departing at the same time; lots of people; too few open desks; and Emirates ground staff herding people haplessly from one queue to the next with no apparent reason.

I have never seen it that disorganised. But it really was a function of not enough open desks and staff lacking training, competence or communication skills. Lots of frustrated passengers; not a good start to the day for people who are about to be sitting in a metal tube for the next 15 hours.

Onboard and we are in 37 J/K - at the front of the rear economy section. Window seat the ground staff had said. Not really. Just a wall with a window behind us. But lots of legroom as this is the emergency exit. Only downside it is also used by the crew as a galley extension and by passengers as a meeting place or queuing place for the washroom.

Two meals and a pizza and fruit service later and we are in Houston. Entertained along the way by "We bought a Zoo" and all eight episodes of Season 1 of "The Boss."

I never really understand Emirates censorship. We cannot see two people kissing or making out - but we can see a guy who has his ears chopped off - or another with his teeth ripped out; stabbed and thrown alive into a pit to be covered in quicklime and buried alive....very graphic.

First hint: do get your rental car in advance; it is much cheaper than a walk up. But we were traveling standby so could not make an earlier booking.

Headed out around the Sam Houston Tollway - basically the outer Houston circular and on I-290 towards Cypress. Bed by 9.00pm - 5.00 in Dubai and awake for 23 hours.




Homewood Suites by Hilton Houston - Northwest/CY-FAIR

Good rooms; friendly people; ridiculously loud a/c. Middle of no where!

The Hangar Hotel; Gillespie County Airport

Unique. Better at weekend when Officers' Club and Diner are open.

Candlewoood Suites, Roswell.

Friendly. Good breakfast

Santa Fe Motel and Inn

Good value in an expensive town. Walk to the plaza. Get an upstairs room or casita so you don't need to listen to people clumping around above you. Helpful front desk.

Comfort Inn - Flagstaff

Easy to get to off I-40. Dated rooms.

Maswick Lodge - Grand Canyon Village

Aged. Needs paint. But you are not at the Grand Canyon to stay in the room.

La Quinta Inn and Suites - LAX

Convenient for airport and for a short overnight stay. But there must be better places nearby.

Houston has a National Museum of Funeral History (really!!) - dont think we will go there - dead boring !

George of the Jungle at 5am in a hotel room somewhere between Houston and Austin is just a little strange.....

Totally jet lagged in I dont know where north west of Houston - making good use of MacDonalds wifi ! What time is it !?

Taken at Gillespie County Airport in Fredericksburg, Texas www.yfrog.com/h8sb9vtmj #avgeek

The same old C-41 stored at Gillespie Country Airport #avgeek www.yfrog.com/g0i0ynrj

Not Toronto or Vancouver - but an Air Canada collection at Roswell's aviation bone-yard #avgeek - www.yfrog.com/mnh3ztoj

In Roswell,NM, searching for alien life forms over breakfast - wonder if aliens get jet lag - I have not slept properly for 3 nights.

USA road trip - 1,814 miles in total - today Roswell to Santa Fe with a route 66 detour  www.yfrog.com/ocj1jop

I come in pieces..... http://t.co/ack2EICa

Close encounter in Roswell. http://t.co/GBcmC7I6

Going to spend two nights in the same place feels like a huge treat !

Sitting in Santa Fe - watching back to back episodes of MASH - one of the truly great tv series.

John Wayne was also here....el Rancho hotel, Gallup, NM http://t.co/d3tCcAsy

Dear America - under cloudless western skies you are a vast and beautiful land.....

Ok folks - that was raw strawberry waffle mix at the breakfast counter and not a strawberry milk shake......very unpleasant !

Lyrid Meteor shower should happen tonite - and where better to see it than from the Grand Canyon......

Just found that there is a Planes of Fame Air Museum in Valle, AZ - and it is just a small detour from the route to the Grand Canyon !!

General MacArthur's Lockheed Constellation stored at Valle Arizona www.yfrog.com/khnyzerj
 - and more history: www.bit.ly/I5marr

Anyone visiting the Grand Canyon should take a vow of silence - this is a place that deserves hushed respect not noise pollution....

Grand Canyon sunrise yoga - if you cannot beat them then.................

Texting while driving at 95mph on I-17 south to Phoenix may be damaging to your health - you know who you are.....

Discovery network - "world's scariest plane landings" - perfect viewing when staying next to LAX !

1934 miles in 8 days from Houston to Phoenix - then a flight to LAX and now leave this morning for Dubai.....heading home for a rest :)