Monday, June 12, 2006

Cold Comfort

Who would work in a tourist information centre? There were benefits of course – the chance to work in an area with "drop dead gorgeous" scenery, such as Zion Canyon. And fabulous it was – huge canyon cliffs towering over us like in Yosemite, but warm red rock instead of grey. With the heavy falls of snow the area was a winter wonderland.

We poked our noses into the Visitor Centre. A large board was hung over the information desk. On it were written the answers to the four most commonly asked visitor questions in Zion Canyon:

1. Where are the toilets?
2. How far is it to Bryce Canyon?
3. Is it really that far?
4. How long is the 12-minute video?

(Sigh) Imagine working amidst such glorious scenery and being asked such inane questions day in, day out.

We drove around the Zion Valley, making the most of this opportunity. From the year 2000, these roads would be closed forever to private transport between March through to November. At that stage it would be buses only in an effort to manage the 3 million visitors per year.

The early Mormon and Methodist settlers had given religious names to the rocky features of the park. Zion means place of refuge. There were "The Patriarchs" (Abraham, Isaac and co), "Angel’s Landing", "The Pulpit" and, causing more than a few sniggers in our group, "The Great White Throne".

We drove out of Zion Canyon and Utah, back into Arizona. A roadside billboard announced our next destination "Grand Canyon – Greatest Earth on Show".

The countryside was dreary after the wonders we had seen. More like what we thought Death Valley should have looked like. Grey dirt making a barren, dusty landscape with straggly clumps of tussock. The land looked drained of all moisture and the roadside was littered with empty booze bottles, something we didn’t see a lot of in Utah. The bottles were no doubt flung out of car windows and we kept on the look out for drunk drivers.

We passed some tacky, almost falling down stalls advertising Navajo jewellery (in American spelling of jewelry), mats and carvings. They didn’t look very appealing. However, just after we had driven past we spotted some hilarious signs: "OOPS, YOU MISSED US" and "FRIENDLY INDIANS BEHIND YOU".

We cruised into Tuba City looking for accommodation. There were slim pickings. One motel at $US75 per room, the motel’s campsite at $US11.00 per tent, and a youth hostel at $US50 per room, with a shared bathroom. Unlike New Zealand campsites, we noticed that this campground had a heated toilet and shower block. With hot showers, our thermals and our three season sleeping bags, we could make ourselves very cosy.

After the previous cost overruns, TH and I happily plugged for the campground. F1 was paying all of his and F2’s personal expedition and accommodation costs. F2 was hanging out for the motel room and, for once, F1 questioned her. However, the answer was that we could share the motel with them to keep the costs down. I coolly pointed out that while this would reduce their costs, it would increase ours, and, if they had helped us out by sharing a cabin the night before, then we could have helped them now.

The problem was compounded by their ignoring TH’s pre-trip advice about packing warm weather gear. In the snowy roads, and in their spartan canvas topped Series 1 Land Rover (which did not have a heater), both F1 and F2 had been very cold. Still, they had refused to buy even woollen hats and gloves in the many tourist places we had been. F1 was still using my spare pair of gloves, which I was annoyed about, as I could have done with an extra layer on my hands.

F1 suggested we try the youth hostel. I didn’t even have to answer that one. F2 promptly refused to go anywhere that she had to share a bathroom with unknown others. It was hard to believe how she had managed the amount of camping that she had said she had done back in New Zealand.

Team meltdown was, by now, almost complete. We camped and they paid for their own motel room. Tomorrow we would go our separate ways.

However, sometimes people can surprise you. TH and I had just made our tent comfortable when there was a knock on our tent pole. It was F2 with a steaming cup of coffee for each of us.
"I made this in our room for you. It will give some warmth."
It was a kind gesture and one that gave me hope. Given time, perhaps she could make it work with us later in the trip.

Maybe, just maybe.

© Eventful Woman, 2006
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Monday, June 05, 2006

Meringues or Rotten Eggs?

Death Valley bloomed like nature had never intended in such a parched area. Record levels of rain (this means just over 5 mm) had fallen over January and February, and the desert had burst into a fertile plain. Flowers, plants and insects had leapt into life. People were travelling for days to see the phenomena. We grumpily said that we wanted to see how it usually looked.

The relationships in the team were just as strange. The morning after our departure from LA I tried to explain to F1 and F2 how I had felt and how TH had felt cheated and betrayed when the choice for Route 66 had been arbitrarily overruled by them and without any discussion.

For the next two days it felt like TH, F2 and myself were all walking on eggs. The atmosphere was ultra sensitive between us - not just the delicate sense of trying not the break anything, but also the tension of egg whites whipped into stiff peaks. Everyone did try to accommodate the other, even F2, but I had a mounting sense of hopelessness. This team was never going to mix well enough to become wonderful meringues or pavlova. At best we were only ever going to be a flat soufflé. At worst, rotten eggs.

In the meantime, all we could do is keep moving on. Parts of Death Valley are below sea level but, of course, being in the desert means dry and waterless sand. The campsite at Furnace Creek was minus190 ft below sea level.

A recent flood (even with only 5 mm of rain) had washed a number of rocks and stones into the camping area. It was the only place in Death Valley that looked like the brochures, and the only place we were allowed to camp. Even on our airbeds, it was an uncomfortable night. At least it wasn’t cold.

We headed north to Las Vegas the next day. We found a cheap hotel on the outskirts that night and then drove our Land Rovers down The Strip. Wow, even in this city of amazing architecture, the people thronging the streets all pointed at our "historic jeeps". It shows that old Land Rovers are sassy enough to hold their own – ANYWHERE.

We again pointed ourselves north in the morning – we were on our way to Utah and Zion Canyon. The mountains in the distance were flat topped, similar to the ones in the grand canyon (and area that we were also aiming for, after Zion Canyon) They looked like a row of back less chairs, or square stools, looking down into the valley.

Utah was cleaner, smarter and tidier than Nevada. Probably something to do with gambling being prohibited in that state. The local state highway signs were in the shape of a beehive. How typical of the church going, Mormon forefathers to choose the symbol of an industrious and busy creature. (That is, hardworking and not allowing the idle hands that the devil could make use of).

Snow was down to road levels and the temperatures were freezing as we drove into Zion Canyon. It was much too cold to camp. We found some fully furnished cabins for $US44 per night. There was plenty of room in each for the four of us to share, which would have helped us with costs. However, F2 was having none of it.
"We need our privacy", she announced.
"You could have the bedroom and we’ll sleep on the floor in the lounge," I offered.
"We need our privacy", she repeated.
"You’re not helping the team effort."
"F**K the team!"

So, it was to be ROTTEN EGGS.

We each moved into separate cabins.

Later F1 visited us in our cabin. He tried to make peace, but it was hopeless. It would have been so much better if the expedition had remained just the three of us as originally planned, and without the last minute and uncomfortable addition of F2.

He didn’t see it like that and I didn’t expect him to. He had demonstrated time and time again that he either didn’t notice F2’s behaviour or that he was blind to it. In fact, he often didn’t notice anything at all.

Whichever Land Rover was in the lead each day needed to keep the following Land Rover in visual sight. If we were in front and the road was busy, windy, or snowy, I (in the passenger seat) would look back to save TH taking his eyes off the road in front. F1 would nearly always be the driver of his Series 1. Without exception, his hands would be at "ten to two" on the wheel, his head would be slightly to one side, his face would be completely devoid of any emotion. His expression never seemed to change. With my over-active imagination I used to wonder if he was some sort of robot inflicted on us to watch and monitor the range of emotions and reactions us humans expressed, particularly when pushed to the limit.

Often when we stopped at the end of each day F2, TH and I would talk about the things we had seen. On one memorable day, we actually saw a prison chain gang. This was an unbelievable sight for someone from New Zealand. But, F1 said that he hadn’t noticed. It was a phrase he used many times on the expedition and it never failed to surprise me.

So, back to our snowy night in Zion Canyon, I knew that I couldn’t expect him to notice why the team had fallen apart. Perhaps if he had a stronger nature or the ability to stand up to F2, things may have been different. And, I am not saying that it was all F2’s fault. We were just incompatible.

We let F1 deliver his "marching orders" from F2 that they split up from us. We agreed to let everyone have a chance to "think about this idea" and review the next night. There wasn’t going to be any thinking of course. It was obvious that one person’s mind was already made up.

Bearing in mind the vital components, it was hard to imagine our expedition could survive by splitting up. Our purpose had been to take a 50 year old Series 1 Land Rover back to England for the 50th Anniversary of the marque. F1 had the Series 1, while TH and I managed the sponsorship package and all communications, planned the route, updated the website and provided the photo-journalism articles. We did have separate tents and cooking equipment, so each team could be self-sufficient in terms of accommodation, if required.

TH and I were also very conscious of the responsibility we owed our sponsors to complete this trip in the way we had promised and that didn’t embarrass or compromise them. It was our only hope that, given enough time apart, we would be able to come together with F1 and F2, in UK, without an obvious display of tension. The story (spin) would be - due to time running short, and that we still had 2500 miles to cover in USA, our temporary separation from F1 and F2 would enable TH and I to visit my relatives in Texas, while the others went on ahead in their slower Series 1.

It was hugely disappointing to be forced to make this decision. However, I could see no other choice. We couldn’t continue with F2 behaving as she did and she didn’t seem to be able get along with us.

At least this way there might be a chance we could complete the expedition.

© Eventful Woman, 2006
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