Friday, March 26, 2010

Heavenly is a place on Earth!

“Oh baby, do you know what that’s worth?”  $88 dollars a day!  That is the cost of the lift ticket to Heavenly, California.

In my opinion, there is no such thing as a ‘bad’ ski resort.  Even a snowy mountain with no lifts is a good place to ski.  These days, people pay more to cat-ski and heli-ski in these places, so a bad ski resort is just a mountain that gets no snow.  But then you can hike, bike or maybe even kayak down it – so maybe I should say there is no such thing as a bad mountain – though perhaps that newly awakened, sleeping- for-200-years volcano in Iceland could be classed as ‘naughty’! 

So, now that I’ve established that mountains are generally good, lets couple their magic with lakes and deserts, and hey presto – Heavenly Ski Resort!  

Heavenly has some of the best ski mountain vista that I’ve ever seen.  Skiing down from the top of the Sky Express, it is possible to see Lake Tahoe on one side and the Nevada desert terrain on the other.  On a sunny spring day, it's worth taking of the skis and walking to some of the views, though be careful, roped-off areas are usually roped-off for a very good reason, a fact I discovered in my very early ski days and better left for discussion in a future possible blog – “Ski disasters and extremely close shaves!”

Like all the North American resorts that I’ve experienced to date, (Tahoe area and a whole bunch in British Columbia, Canada) once you leave the base area you are on the mountain and that’s it.  Unlike the European resorts, that have restaurants, cafes and chateaus from the highest peaks scattered all down the mountainside, allowing the skier to “warm up” at any stage of their journey, the North American resorts tend not to have facilities up the mountain.  Why?  I’m not sure.  Do I like it?  No.  But for conservation reasons, it may be a good thing.  It also tends to give the skier a keener sense of being “at one with the Mountain”!  (Did I really use this phrase?  I seem to remember a million years ago slagging a spaced out snowboarder for talking like that – Oh well, maybe California is rubbing off on me – though the snowboarder was Austrian and full of schnapps!)

When writing about resorts, I think about what’s important to me as a skier.  Navigability is high up there after the obvious, snow quality, lift system, variability of terrain etc.  Steepness is not a concern unless there are simply no escape routes down for less proficient skiers, or for me when I’m feeling lazy, which happens a lot these days.  And not having enough challenging runs doesn’t apply – I enjoy the easy carving stuff as much as the adrenalin pumping thigh burners on those crazy steep runs which we affectionately call “brown” runs!

In California, having a car is essential to getting to the piste if you are going to go to more than one resort.  If you are going to stay put for more than a few days you’ll need to ski the large resorts.  When I lived in Ireland a ski trip lasted a week.  We went to one (usually European) resort and did the package deal thing.  Your price included a transfer from the airport to the hotel.  You never needed to rent a car, and the hotel was chosen based on proximity to the lifts and the bars.  Apres Ski is HUGE in Europe.  You can even go for a pub crawl down the slopes.  Not so here.  And maybe that’s a good thing – at least my liver thinks so!

The three largest resorts are HeavenlySquaw Valley and Northstar

Heavenly is in South Lake Tahoe.  Whilst you can stay in some of the more expensive luxurious accommodations, like the Marriot at the Gondola base, South Lake caters for all pockets.  There is an abundance of low cost (low quality) accommodation.  Divided by the California/Nevada Stateline, you can choose to stay in Nevada and avail of the casino’s and their cheap accommodation too.  Smoking laws are pretty slack in Nevada so we tend to stay in the Holiday Inn Express on the California side.  It is a reasonable price and provides a solid, good standard I've come to expect from Holiday Inn.  

In general, South Lake is very busy, even during the week.  It tends to attract a young college crowd and it can be noisy at night.  Compared to the rest of the Tahoe area, it feels somewhat tacky – South Lake Tacky!  It is as if Heavenly is just so good that the town doesn’t have to put in much effort to attract its clientele.  They’ll go there – guaranteed. 

The Heavenly Ski area is big.  Like the town, it runs from California to Nevada.  I get a kick out of the signs - “Welcome To…” either Nevada or California depending on your direction.  This photo was taken in Janurary 2006.  It snowed the whole time and we skied the entire time in waist deep powder, though we didn't see the view until we returned the following year!

The Stage Coach Lodge, on the most extreme Nevada side (left as you view the piste map or trail guide, as the Americans call it) is a nice place to get a bite to eat though the chair lift out of here is really slow.  The Nevada side has lovely blue runs named after either chocolate bars or things from space, depending on how you look at it – Galaxy, Milky Way etc.

I’d avoid the Gondola from the village, if you can.  The dismount area is really flat and there is a fair bit to walk to the nearest run or lift.  If you only have one day for Heavenly, start at California Lodge, go to the top of Sky Express and descend on the Nevada side first.  Explore that area then make your way back to the California Lodge side (skipping the Gondola area in the center).  One day in late December 2006, the year after we had skied in blizzard conditions for the best part of a week, my husband and I were lucky enough to catch sunset and moon rise from Ridge run back to California Lodge.

Another of my favorite runs is Powder Woods on the California Lodge side.  On the piste map it is blue.  The sign at the top says it is black.  Gradient wise it is blue, but the trees upgrade it to a black.  It is not groomed, so it is like skiing off piste.  You can take a new line through Powder Woods each time you ski it and never do the same line twice.
We took timeout to experiment with the new camera too.

We stayed in Squaw Valley in January 2010.  This resort is on the western side of the lake, a beautiful 50 minute drive north from Heavenly, past the spectacular Emerald Bay.  We had ski-in-ski-out accommodation at the Red Wolf Lodge.  The accommodation was very expensive (over $200 a night) but gorgeous!  I love piste side accommodation.  It’s just so easy.  I was disappointed with the Squaw Ski Resort though.  The signage for the runs was bad, so we got lost often and felt glad that we could tackle whatever terrain we stumbled across, perhaps not gracefully, but we’d get down it.  I reckon it would be a nightmare for beginners!  

This is me resting after walking up to the top of a hill after the slope just ran out of steam.  It was supposed to be a blue!

The views were amazing the day we were there.  The lake, and only the lake, had a blanket of fog so that we could look down on the clouds.  
Squaw Village was nice.  There was a good range of places to eat and lots of little shops to potter about in - and a random giant chair !

We skied Northstar a couple of years ago.  I really liked it.  I thought it would be fantastic for families (though also expensive – but once you move away from South Lake Tacky everything is!), the resort is purpose built (most are, but this one is very nicely done) and there is an Ice rink, fire pits, cafes and shops in a bustling little center village.  It would be great to stay in this resort, if you could afford it, and just roll out of bed on onto your skis.  The lift is right there!  The intermediate runs are mostly off the Arrow Express and the back side of the mountain has a couple of fun but challenging bowls.  Plenty to keep most people occupied for a few days.

Some of the smaller, out of the way resorts are worth doing.  I really liked Mount Rose, a ski resort in Nevada, northeast of Lake Tahoe and very close to Reno - a good source of great value accommodation.  It has a homely, friendly feel to it and it really has a surprising range of terrain to offer.  At $65 for a day’s skiing it is great value for money. 

The smaller resorts tend to be cheaper.  Trying a new one each day is a great way to see the area.  You can even buy half-day tickets at a slight reduction – not half off, as the name may suggest.  If you are mad for freshies then that option is not for you.  If you are like my sleepy-headed husband, it’s a nice relaxing way to resort hop, have a ski trip and a holiday – from the girl who used to pride herself on being in the lift queue before the lifts opened and didn’t stop ‘til the last lift closed.  Once, on a school trip I was awarded a prize for being THAT keen – I was one of the teachers!  How sad.  And how times have changed...  

Byddi Lee

Friday, March 19, 2010

Taking control of my part of the planet

The conversion of the front yard has begun!  I’ve been doing lots of research about this conversion - reading up on it, online searches, attending talks and chatting to people who know about these things.  The chatting part is always the most productive!  I spoke to a lovely lady called Chris recently at a California Native Plant Society (CNPS) meeting who advised me to plant my new natives in the fall to coincide with the onset of the next rainy season.  Music to my ears!  It gives me time to rip out all that old invasive privet, ivy and poisonous oleander.

These pictures are taken with the front of the house behind me and to my right.  The first shot shows some of the ivy.
Scanning right you can see "the jungle" and a privet hedge that bisects the front yard.

Continuing to scan right, you can see past the privet hedge, over the lawn to the Douglas Fir which, thank goodness, is native.  The palm tree beyond is not, but we'll keep it. There is one on either side of our drive way - like gate posts!  Notice the thicket beyond the lawn to the left of the picture. That's all coming out!

The idea of removing all that brush and shrub fills me with glee and dread simultaneously.  I weed whacked a patch of the ivy (approximately 8’ X 10’), and it was very satisfying to start to see what is under there, but knowing how stubborn ivy is, I need to dig it out.  A harrowing thought.  “Character building!” my husband says, but it’s alright for him to talk, sitting in his air-conditioned office at the height of the San Jose summer whilst I’m fighting back the ivy.  Mind you, I wouldn’t trade places!

The day after I removed the top of the ivy, I saw a rat running around looking completely –well – uncovered - bare, as if he’d just stepped out of the shower, and someone had whipped away his towel.  I’m not bothered by rats, and in fact, I think they are kind of cute.  This little guy looked all around the newly whacked area, and I felt bad for destroying his home.  He even checked out under the car and roamed across the driveway – a brave move considering the number of hawks we have circling above here everyday.

One day recently, I was out there with the camera taking photos of the resident scrub jays.  The privet trees, grown way past shrub size, and hedge area were a hive of activity.  I could hear rattling in the undergrowth/ivy, probably the rat - far too fast to snap.  Birds were chirping, and Mr and Ms Jay were being a cooperative models.  

A flash of shadow from a huge bird above us, a collective frantic rustle – then, nothing.  

The garden seemed empty of life.  I imagined the little creatures all hiding, beady eyes peeking out from under their selected leaf, little hearts pumping, moving the fur or feathers on their tiny chest, all with one question in their wee brains, “Is he gone yet?”

They have more patience than me – their lives depend on it.  Nothing moved again for ten long minutes.  Impatience got the better of me.  With the lack of any critters to take photos of, I headed back inside to read my emails!  From my perch at the computer, I could see the garden come back to life with a squirrel dashing across the lawn then doubling back to dig a little and then bury something.  The jays resumed squawking, and the smaller birds struck up their twitter.  This was their home I was going to be messing with.

After some contemplation about this I decided that, yes there was going to be some upheaval to the really, really local wildlife.  When I’m taking a “break” from writing I stare out the window at the front lawn.  It has numerous visitors, and I worry at disrupting them.  The bushes and shrubs are home to a host of critters.  The jays that live there won’t be happy, nor will the squirrels not to mention reptiles, smaller birds and mammals.  But in the long run they will be happier in amongst the native plants.  It’s like renovating a home –fraught with hardship and hassle, but so worth it when the work is all done.

I bought new loppers, having broken my old ones pruning the pomegranate tree at the start of the year.  In one hour I was able to devastate the entire privet hedge that divided the front yard into two.  Merely an aesthetic job, in so far as, I haven’t tackled the roots, but it gives me a nice idea of how the garden is opening up.  It amazes me how a small tidy bush has so much in it when you pull it all apart.  The pile of debris was twice the size of the original hedge!

Next, I decided to have a go at the start of the area I think of as “the jungle”.  It goes about fifteen feet back to the neighbor's fence.  Ivy covers the ground and scraggly wannabe tree-shrubs are amassed in a thicket.  I used my trusty loppers to remove the branches as far up as I could reach – it towers above me at about 25 feet tall, maybe more - I suck at guessing distances!  

As I broke through the first wall of branches, I was rewarded with an open area.  If I’d been 12, I’d have built a fort here!  The ivy leaves were the size of dinner plates and came up to my knee.  I made a lot of noise with my feet.  I didn’t want to come upon a sleepy snake, and I wanted the rats to get plenty of notice of eviction!

Above me were branches with blossoms at their very tips, flowering where they could find a patch of light.  Buried in the jungle is a brave little plum tree that I may just think about salvaging.  I’m not sure how it will rub shoulders with the natives, being non-native.  But this tree with its pretty flowers, blossoming against all odds, struggling for the light and slowly being strangled, seemed somehow honorable!   

As the day cooled into evening, I took another walk out to see my days handiwork.  High in the branches of the trees still standing in my yard, sat a host of little birds chipping and chirping.  It felt like they were scolding at the disruption.  A mocking bird perched on the sawn off end of a branch and cocked its head first one way then the other as if measuring me up for size.  Its better this way, I said in my head, sending the critters in my yard the telepathic message – I feel so privileged to have my part of this planet, and I promise to make it better for all of us.

Byddi Lee

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Who was St Patrick? (NOT a Religious Education Essay!)

St Patrick is hailed as the Patron Saint of Ireland because he brought Christianity to Ireland.  We Irish, as a nation, show our devotion to our Patron Saint by going out and getting totally trolleyed1
Sometime during the fourth century, St Patrick was kidnapped from somewhere near Dumbarton in Scotland2 when he was about 16, and brought to Ireland as a slave, ending up on a mountain tending sheep.  It seems impossible that a person could live outside at all in Ireland, never mind on a mountain, for six years.  I can definitely understand that Patrick spent a lot of his time praying.  Who wouldn’t be asking God to get them off that awful mountain to a nice warm dry bed, food and some company? 
It seemed that God answered his prayers, and after six years, St Patrick did escape and returned to his family.  Quite an accomplishment without GPS!  Imagine the youth of today surviving kidnapping, enslavement, living outside on an Irish mountain to tend sheep, escaping, stowing away across the Irish Sea again, and then finding a way home after being away for so many years.  I can hardly find my way from the airport to my hometown each time I go back, it changes that much.  I suppose they did not have as many road works in the fourth century.  At this point, I reckon the chap had earned enough brownie points to become a saint already!
            So poor Patrick, upon receiving the oft prayed for bed, food and family reunion, whilst reposing in said bed, had a dream, a vision of the Irish people calling him back to Ireland.  Now really, most sane people would have wakened up in a cold sweat, and thought “That was one hell of a nightmare!” got up, had a drink of water, gone to the loo, then gone back to sleep and forgotten all about it.  Oh no, not our Patrick!  He followed the instructions proposed in his dream.  If I were prone to doing the things suggested by my dreams I’d have spent half my life turning up to School (both as a pupil and a teacher) in my pyjamas, or less!
            It must have been an interesting conversation that the twenty-two-year-old Patrick would have had with his parents, who some sources claim were actually Romans looking after the colonies…
            “Mum, Dad, do you remember when I disappeared and got taken into slavery?”
            “Ah hum!”  Father rattles ‘Ye Olde Roman Chronicle’ newspaper and continues to read, ignoring Patrick.
            “Yes, dear, go on,” says Mother putting another boar’s head on the spit above the fire.
            “Well, you see, I had this dream, and the Irish want me to go back.”
            “They weren’t very nice to you the last time, were they dear?” points out Mother, as she scatters new straw over the earthen floor.  “What does your father say?”
            “Irish what?  Who?” starts his Father, as if he has just woken up. 
            “You see, Dad, I dreamed of the voice of the Irish calling me back,”  says Patrick.
            “Well you’re a middle-aged man now son, that’s for you to decide,” says his Dad, turning to the sports page to see how the Christians were faring against the Lions in Rome.
            “Well, if you must, dear,” says Mum “but don’t forget your sweater this time!”
            So St Patrick, possibly suffering the first case of Stockholm syndrome ever recorded in history,  returned to Ireland after studying for the priesthood and becoming a Bishop.  In fairness, he did have a plan.  Personally, mine would have been to batter the cruel slave driver who had treated him so badly when he was in captivity, but in true saintly fashion, Patrick went back and by some accounts, actually paid the guy for his freedom and then forgave him. 
It would have been impossible for him to have kissed the Blarney Stone as Blarney Castle would be not be built for at least another 700 years, but he certainly had the gift of the gab.  He converted the Irish to Christianity from Druidism, and in true Irish fashion his doings were told, retold and exaggerated tenfold.
            Allegedly St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland3.  So what did Saint Patrick say when he was driving these snakes out of Ireland? 
What I envisaged as a child, was St Patrick all decked out in his green bishop cloak and pointy hat sitting in a Morris Minor.  For some reason, it’s a navy blue car, though you would have thought the Patron Saint of Ireland would have a customised emerald green car, but nope, in my infant mind’s eye, it’s navy blue. 
            Piled up on the back seat are coils of snakes, slithering off the seats as the car brakes, and St Patrick drives over potholes.  (There must have been an awful lot of potholes in the fourth century if the twenty-first century is anything to go by!)  St Patrick hits a really big pothole, and the car bounces a foot off the ground.  The snakes in the back seat are jolted up, and their spring-like shapes extend momentarily and then compress again as gravity pulls them back down onto the back seat.  St Patrick, knuckles white as his hands still grip the steering wheel, shouts over his shoulder,
            “Are you all right there in the back, lads!”  And that’s what St Patrick said as he drove the snakes out of Ireland!
            The very first St Patrick’s day in Ireland really wasn’t his day at all!  It was the day he died.  Still, he loved the Irish, and I’m sure he doesn’t mind that they have turned the anniversary of his death into a Guinness drinking festival on a global scale.  I also hope that he forgives my facetious style of recreating events in his life, though I wouldn’t expect anything less of the great man, who forgave his cruel captors and came back to save their souls.

1 While the Inuit have over 150 words for snow, the Irish have nearly the same number of words to describe being inebriated!

2 There are conflicting accounts of where St Patrick was actually abducted from.  Some say Wales, others England and I choose to believe Scotland because it is the closest to Ireland.  You can even see Scotland from parts of the north coast of Ireland.  Interestingly enough, articles that differ in stating his place of origin seem to concur that his parent's names were Calpurnius and Conchessa!

3 Postglacial Ireland did not have snakes.  Snakes may have been symbolic of pagan beliefs or Druidism.  Good job too because Postglacial Ireland didn’t have Morris Minors either, until the twentieth century!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Springtime – A Myriad of Miracles

Sometimes, it’s the small things in life that make my heart glow.  When I say small, I mean measuring about one eight of an inch (3-4mm), like the tiny cotyledons, the first leaves, of a germinating seed poking bravely up through the soil.

This is a sugar snap pea and my finger - my finger is the pink one!

It always amazes me that a shiny, stone like seed can transform into a green, growing, living thing.  Nature’s struggle for survival is truly amazing.

Spring has sprung, and it made me think of all the ways we gardeners get things to grow.  We buy plants already started, like I did when I started my native plant shade garden.  It’s a buzz to see them prosper, get stronger and even blossom.  My neighbor, Al, dug up some oregano and chives from his garden and gave them to me.

In the background you can see (from left to right) dill, basil and coriander/cilantro (depending on which country you are reading this from).  

I do prefer to try to grow things from seed.  I get such a thrill from germination.  Did I really write that?  Perhaps I should get out more.  But it’s true!  And it’s cheaper. 
This is baby basil. Cute!

Last night, as I munched on delicious sugar snap peas, I thought about how I had put those little green seeds into the garden last October, and now we have food.  The pea flowers were pretty too.  Here are some photos that my friend and gifted photographer, Cait Hutnik, took of them.

Even when the odds are against survival, nature doesn’t give up.  We had an old cherry tree with a rotted trunk.  On Al's advice, an expert in growing fruit trees, we cut down the tree and replaced it with another cherry. 

The cherry tree stump.

Cherry branches grow very straight, and I saved a few of the smaller limbs to use as rods for my newly sewn pea plants.  A week later, the buds on the twigs had burst and blossoms were flowering - the tree that grew them, long since gone.  It was as if they were ghost flowers.  Cait was captivated by these also and took some beautiful shots.  You can see more of her amazing photographs on her Light of Morn website.

Al and his wife, Karla, helped me choose three new fruit trees for the garden to replace other trees that had either fallen down or were too old and needed taken down.  I chose a cherry, an almond and a nectarine tree. 

The local adult education center had free classes in January about grafting.  Never one to overlook free stuff, I attended and was inspired to have a go.  Al knows all about grafting.  Each of his fruit trees sport different colors of blossoms on the same trunk where he has grafted different species together.

I understood the biology of it - bring two branches together, their cambium tissue (the growing tissue that  produces new cells continually, just under the bark) touching and they will fuse together.  It’s just hard to believe that if you stick a plum twig, no more than 3 inches long, onto the end of an almond branch that it will actually grow there.

Al gave me grafts or scions, as the twigs are called, for each of my new trees and showed me how to do the first one.  He had the grafting tar and tape and generously gave them to me for the other two grafts.  He told me to check the grafts every couple of days and then laughed - knowing I’d be out everyday, hail rain or shine inspecting them!  After a couple of weeks the buds seemed to be swelling, but it was hard to tell, because as Al had predicted, I was scrutinizing them on a daily basis, even multiple times a day.

First thing I did when I got back from the Grand Canyon trip was go check on the grafts – and joy of joys, one of them had burst into leaves!  Within a few days it was obvious that they had all taken.  Another garden miracle!  And now I'm a year I plan to graft some more.
This is a different type of cherry grafted to the new cherry sapling.
This is a peach scion on the almond tree - (I think!  Lesson learned here - write it down when you do the graft!)

This is also one of those mystery ones!  I'm nearly certain it is plum, grafted on to nectarine. 

Cait captured the nectarine's amazing pink blossoms!
Bulbs, rhizomes and tubers also amaze me.  Bulbs look so dead when they are dormant, but grow into such beautiful flowers.  Daffodils were my Dad’s favorite flower. 
With rhizomes and tubers, you break a piece off a plant (or buy it at the supermarket – even more fascinating) and hydrate it, or in some cases you can stick it straight into the ground, and hey presto you have new, identical plants. This works for potatoes, garlic and ginger.  I bought garlic from the supermarket and just let it start growing in a cupboard.  When the shoot was about half an inch long, I planted them, last December.

Same with some potatoes:

I tried it with sweet potato, and it didn’t work, but it should.  I think it was too cold when I did it, hence the gap at the end of the row where my one sweet potato plant should be (note the label!).  I’m planning on trying again when the weather is warmer.

This is my first time trying ginger, and I’m only at the stepping it in water stage, though I will keep you posted.

Then there are the plants whose stems you stick in water and they magically produce roots (sometimes with the help of a little rooting hormone).  I’m trying this with lavender and rosemary, though the lavender looks like it is wilting.  The rosemary looks happy enough.  Notice the fancy designer plant pot!

Lemon grass falls between this category and the next – I’m soaking the very bottom of its stem, i.e. where its roots would have been before they were cut off.  According to 'You Grow Girl', roots will develop and I can grow this also at home.  My grocery list is getting shorter and shorter!

My spider plant is magnificent!  In fairness, it’s nearly impossible to kill a spider plant, although my green fingered mother is the only person I know of who has achieved it. 

I love when it produces babies.  I pot them up and give them to friends.  Even my friend Eileen, the self proclaimed, notorious plant murderer, has managed to keep the one I gave her alive!

Here is another example of vegetative propagation - aren’t the babies cute!  This was a present from my friend, Thanh, who has a veritable nursery of succulents and their babies.

Many succulents and cacti do this.  It works well, especially for cacti that may have to wait a long time for rain to germinate seeds.  They clone themselves, and as their environment is usually very stable and doesn’t change much they are not disadvantaged by the lack of variation typical of asexual reproduction.
Isn’t nature just magical – and if these examples weren’t proof enough, here is the view from my garden one rainy day last week, some where under the rainbow.

Byddi Lee

Friday, March 5, 2010

Route 66, Roadkill and The Grand Canyon!

We call our GPS system “Jane”. When my husband introduced me to Jane, I wasn't happy. I like using maps. The huge Atlas in my father’s study was a wish book to me as a child. I’d flick through the pages, dreaming of visiting those far off lands. Maps give me a sense of where I am in the larger scheme of things, and they help me learn my way around.

I disliked Jane’s voice-- a posh English woman’s voice.

“Why this voice?” I asked my husband, who had chosen it from a library of voices, “What about Brad, the surf dude, Aussie voice?” Or even Wolfgang, the Austrian? Though, directions in German weren’t of much use to either of us! It was a double whammy - another female and English!

“What about a nice Irish voice?” I said. It didn’t have one, probably because if you ask an Irish person for directions, they’d say stuff like, “I wouldn’t start from here, if I were you!” or “Keep going, until you see the post office, then you know you’ve gone too far…” and my favorite, which I actually heard in County Cork, “Keep going to the ‘T’ junction, then go straight on.” No matter which way I figure this one, I’m left sitting in a field – albeit one with very green grass!

Mum’s sense of direction is absolutely and unequivocally atrocious! So, we needed Jane to help navigate to the Grand Canyon. Another bug bear with Jane is that she has no sense of sight seeing! She will choose the route that is the fastest and that uses the biggest, most popular, craziest driver filled highways. She really needs a “tourist setting”! And because of Jane we nearly missed Route 66!

We drove out of Las Vegas, southbound on highway 93 and very soon came upon Hoover Dam. There are a variety of tours to the Grand Canyon from Las Vegas, by land or air. Those by land always advertise that they include a tour to the Hoover Dam. You have to go that way anyway; it’s not really an extra trip, so you are not necessarily getting extra bang for your buck. It is an interesting stop, though the traffic moves so slowly over the dam right now that you will see enough of it without even having to get out of your car. There are road works there at the moment, and it looks as though they are building a humongous bridge to by-pass the dam.

After this it speeds up again. Mum, the ever cautious passenger, kept telling me to slow down. She didn’t swallow my line that the highway marker was the speed limit – we were on highway 93! We picked up Interstate 40, speed limit here was 75 mph, and headed east.

The Grand Canyon was still two hours away. I was getting sleepy, so we decided to take a pit stop at the next exit. We followed the food signs to a little town called Seligman and suddenly discovered that we were on Route 66. I was puzzled. Was this THE Route 66? Why hadn’t it been mentioned in any of the research I’d done on getting to the Grand Canyon? Probably no profit to be made for the big corporations from folks travelling along it. And Jane – why hadn’t she thrown it up as an option?

At the junction was a host of signs, advertising various places to eat. And then we saw the place where I just knew I had to eat – The Roadkill Cafe – Their motto “You kill it, we grill it”! It has a cute row of Western store fronts on site and lots of photo opportunities.

Like I said, Mum’s sense of direction is really terrible – she is supposed to be pointing to the sign above the cafe!

The menu is rib-tickling, if not appetizing. You can savour such delicious delights as ‘One Eyed Dog “Hit in the fog”’ or the “Smatter Platter”!

The town claimed to be the birthplace of Route 66, though logically wouldn’t that be either at one end of it or the other – not somewhere in the middle, or even west of middle? The friendly Roadkill staff, (that sounds all wrong!) told me that Route 66 either runs parallel to I40, or merges with it. So, we decided that we would follow it after we’d finished our yummy pies – vegetarian ergo no road kill.

We returned to Las Vegas along Route 66 on our way home a few days later too. Not another car in sight as far forward as we could see up the dead straight road to the horizon, nor back behind us to that horizon. A total movie moment!

Before we left the Roadkill Café, I happened to get lost on the way to the restrooms and ended up in the bar. Seriously, stuff like that always happens to me! (Blink, blink!) The bar part is called the OK Saloon. I was standing there looking at the heads of the various stuffed animals and asked the barman, Art, if that was a real buffalo.

“Sure, it’s real,” he said, paused, then added “Real dead.” And he didn’t even crack a smile. That was okay, as I was laughing enough for both of us. Art is a real character – he kept us entertained, telling us the story behind all the dollar bills with names on them, attached to the walls and ceiling of the bar. Apparently, way back in the day, the cowboys only got paid once a month, and they’d write their name on a dollar and pin it to the bar, so that when they got back from driving cattle, possibly with all their wages spent (though I wondered where they’d spend it?) they’d at least have money for beer, though as Art pointed out –“It’s no good now cos a dollar don’t get ya nothin’!”

When I asked Art if it was okay to post his picture in my blog he said, “Sure, just don’t let those people in the post office or the FBI see it.” He rated highly on my grinometer!

It’s a 5 hour trip – with no stops – to the Grand Canyon. Last time I did it, four of us hired a car between us from Las Vegas, drove the five hours, reached the canyon just before sunset, got out had a look, got back in the car after half an hour and drove all the way back to Las Vegas. Whilst it beats never seeing it, there are better ways to view the Grand Canyon.

Initially, I researched staying in the Grand Canyon Village, which is inside the Grand Canyon National Park. We are talking about a hole in the ground here, a huge one, but still a hole, so unless you are right on the edge of it, you don’t have a view of it. Twenty meters from the hole and you can’t see it. It’s not like Ayre's Rock, which you can see from more than 40 miles out, so it’s extremely expensive to get a room with a view of the Grand Canyon. The Bright Angel Lodge and Cabins start at $142 fro a cabin on the rim, but these had no availability for our dates – mid week, mid winter! The cheapest I could get was a $248 room, not even on the rim. You need to book really far in advance to get the best value for money. Even with that big price tag, the rooms are basic, according to the general gist of Trip Advisor. Stay in the National Park only if you don’t mind paying big prices for low standard accommodation.

Two miles from the gates of the park there is a small village called Tuyusan. It seems to be mostly of a collection of hotels from the usual big hotel groups. We stayed in the very comfortable Holiday Inn Express for $69 per room per night, and breakfast was included each morning. There were coffee making facilities in the room, as well as a fridge and a microwave. It was a 15 minute trip to the Grand Canyon each day. You paid an entrance fee of $25 dollars for one car and all its passengers, good for one week and for all entrances. This was good to know because when I initially spoke on the phone to a person about staying at BrightAngel cabins, she omitted to tell me that the park fee was good for a week. The way she told it, staying within the park – at the cost of $248 per room per night was better as I wouldn’t have to pay into the park each day! Very misleading information, and whilst I know the tourist industry is struggling in this economy, this is almost fraudulent. I’ll give that our accents may have confused each other. I did ring back a day later, and another nice chap gave me the correct information.

The Canyon is spectacular. “Grand” doesn’t quite cut it. It should have been called the “Stunning Canyon”. Words can’t describe it, and pictures rarely do it justice! There was about a foot of snow at the top. Further down into the Canyon it gets warmer, so the snow doesn't go all the way in. I loved the snowy vistas.

If you do one thing when you go to the Grand Canyon it should be… apart from stopping at the Roadkill Cafe ….the helicopter ride!

It was amazing, and so gentle. We went with Papillon on the Eco-Star Grand Canyon Helicopter Tour. The flight was smooth, much more so than the single engine Cessna that my husband has taken me flying in. Mum and I had a great view from the front seat, with the headphones pumping in a great soundtrack, which stirred my emotions to the extent that I felt as though I might cry as we dipped over the rim! I felt so lucky to get the chance to do this, and was delighted that Mum could experience it too.

Next time I go, I will hike it. As I gazed at it from the ground later, I just wanted to go down into it, treacherous and all as the snow made it look.

I like to leave something to come back for, just as I did the last time. I’ll finish with an excerpt from what I wrote about the Grand Canyon in May 2004 and a slide-show from February 2010.

“And the Grand Canyon itself - Absolutely Unbelievable!!! We were driving to a vantage point and thought we would see it from a distance when through the roadside bushes we saw this almighty hole in the planet. We gasped - awestruck, and Baz pulled over, and we all got out and walked to the edge. To think a river did this!!! And all it took was lots of time - I saw it as a testament to perseverance - time and patience can do anything, and I was humbled at how the Colorado River could, over millions of years, carve this out. A tribute to the grace of God and Nature! And yet, 4 hours down the road was a monster of a tribute to humanity’s lack of grace - what a contrast! We could have sat and watched the changing colours all day but were beat back to the car often to warm up, as it was surprisingly cold! It even snowed a little!”