USA - SEPTEMBER 2002
I pulled off Interstate 40 and drove into Flagstaff. First impressions were this most awful, horrible smell (but I forgot to write down what it smelled like, and I can't remember now).
The mountain in the distance was most impressive - you could see it from well over 80 miles away in the direction of New Mexico (not to mention that when I was at Cameron later on - some 60 miles north, you could still see it there too). I think it's Mount Humphrey (12643 feet) but information is stangely lacking. Doubtless someone will in due course.
I took this photograph next morning. Strange as it may seem, there was quite a queue of people waiting here to take a photo of this view. It must be quite a popular spot for photography, or there's some kind of ritual about the place, the kind of which I encountered a couple of days later.
One thing about Flagstaff is that this was where Mel Brooks must have conceived the idea of Rock Ridge. In Rock Ridge everything was owned by the Johnsons. Here in Flagstaff everything was owned by the Babbitts. Rumour has it that even the sheep in the countryside say "Baaa - bitt".
The impetus to growth of the settlement was of course the railway, or railroad. When the railway arrived in south-west USA, it chose this area to be the site of a depot.
And with it being a railway town, there obviously has to be the obligatory railway relic. Such as the obligatory rusting steam locomotive, parked up outside the railway station.
It's the typical wood-burning timber-hauling veteran from the days when timber was the staple product from around here. It's been "preserved", if that is the right word, by slapping loads of paint all over it in some kind of vain attempt to keep the rust out.
This kind of "preservation", in a country and a society that ought to know better, dismays me. It seems to be almost everywhere and it's just so sad how a developed nation can let its heritage rot away like this. Well, almost everywhere, I suppose. A few days later, I would be proved dramatically wrong.
If you take a close look at this photo, you will see that the steel is rusting away underneath the paint and streaking the surface. I bet that this is as rotten as a pear underneath all the paint.
I'm not suite sure why Americans consider that tons of paint is an adequate method of preserving a vintage piece of machinery like this. It's probably beyond repair by now.
As an interesting aside, the railway station is still open for passengers and has an Amtrak connection.
While we are on the subjecy of trees and wood and Flagstaff, John Bourke, the adjutant of General Crook during the Apache Wars and author of the wonderful book On the Border with Crook, had a few things to say on the subject.
"Flagstaff", he says, "favourably located in the timber belt has since been established the great Ayers-Riordan saw and planing mill, equipped with every modern appliance for the destruction of the old giants whose heads had nodded in the breezes of centuries. Man's inhumanity to man is an awful thing. His inhumanity to God's beautiful trees is scarecly inferior to it. Trees are nearly human - they used to console man with their oracles and I must confess my regret that the Christian dispensation has so changed the opinions of the world that the soughing of the evening wind through their branches is no longer a message of hope or a solace to sorrow."
And that's telling you, isn't it?
And now a little controversy.
"Only a little?", I hear some of you say.
"Surely not! Not like you at all, Eric"
One of the things that I have to bear in mind on my travels is the fact that I'm an economy traveller. I'm at the budget end of the spectrum when it comes to choosing everything. Don't be misled by the Mustang that I was driving. This was a concession to the depression that I was in that had been the result of me having been obliged to take early medical retirement from work.
So, I was up for getting the cheapest deal possible from everywhere that I went. I was fully aware of the law of averages that stated that sooner or later I was bound to come unstuck.
And that was here at Flagstaff.
This motel on the edge of Flagstaff had a sign outside advertising rooms at $22. This works out, with taxes, to be about $26. On my travels over the USA I'd never seen a motel as cheap as that.
The booking clerk was an extremely streetwise boy of about 11, ably aided and abetted by his sister who was aged about 5. We had an interesting interaction in which I managed to negotiate the room down to $25, and I felt quite pleased with myself.
Unfortunately, the credit card machine was ... er ... not working, so they would be grateful if I could pay in cash (well, I'm sure that all of us who have ever been in business have done something like this before). That obliged me to nip down to town to get the cash. Before I left, though, they asked me to put my baggage in the room, but they kept the key as a guarantee until I'd come back.
Down in the town, I found some cash, organised myself a meal, and then returned to pay for the room. Despite the "free coffee" sign, there was NO COFFEE.
"Come back in half an hour" said the kid. And so I did - and still no coffee.
"Shoot, I forgot" said the young boy in a "no I didn't really forget but money is tight and so we need to make economies so the free coffee was the first thing to be chucked in the bin" type of voice. Well, chwarae teg, I don't think that there's any reader of these pages who's never done this before either.
So back to my room. And it only once I was inside it that I noticed the smell. If I had have noticed this before paying, I'd have been long gone from here.
Half of the lights weren't working either, and it was probably just as well. God knows what the room would have looked like if all the bulbs had been working, and what my reaction would have been. Maybe that's why half of the lights weren't working.
What do you think about this for grotty decor? Have a look at the curtain hanging on the rail like this! I tell you what - it's worse than my apartment in Brussels! We won't mention the sheets at all though. Let's just say that I should have come here in the spring. They would probably have still been clean then.
Next morning, there was still the pervasive smell. I'd worked out by now what it was. My money was on it being the previous tenants buried underneath the floorboards.
I then turned my attention to the shower. Now anyone who has ever been on a voyage with me, or come down to stay at my farm will know that I'm not the squeamish type. But there was no way on this earth that anyone was going to get me get into that shower. Not even Percy Penguin offering me all the delights of her nubile body (said he, recalling a certain "incident" that had occurred on a skiing trip to Bulgaria in 1994).
I contented myself with a wash, changed my clothes, and took the key back. Outside on the car park, some other lodger was busily assembling a barbecue outside his cabin so thay he could cook his sausages for breakfast. In the office, the 11-year old boy and his sister were still on duty, watching "Rugrats" on the biggest television screen I've ever seen in my life. And STILL no coffee either. Last night he had told me his father was "asleep out back". I wondered whereabouts his father was asleep this morning.
All this got me thinking about an "incident" that had occurred the previous evening. As I was unpacking the car, I had been quickly and pointedly introduced to the boy's 13-year old sister, who (to my mind) didn't have both paddles in the water. I wonder if I had missed the point of that introduction
Like I say, it takes a lot to get me worked up but this place certainly did. It was like something out of a John Steinbeck novel.
Now, before anyone starts to get upset, or ask any sort of questions about me and the motel, let me draw your attention to one of the opening lines of this particular section.
"This motel on the edge of Flagstaff was advertising rooms at $22 on the sign. This works out, with taxes, to be about $26. On my travels over the USA I'd never seen a motel as cheap as that".
It might be the worst motel I've ever stayed in, but it was also the cheapest. And you get what you pay for, as everyone knows. I stayed at another motel in South Carolina in 2005 that was almost as bad as this, but which cost me nearly twice as much. Now, that what was I call poor value. Here in Flagstaff, I paid $25 and got exactly what I paid for. If I don't like the cheapest hotel in town, then the next time I come to Flagstaff I shall just have to be more discerning, budgetary considerations notwithstanding.
And just so that there is no mistake or misunderstanding, if anyone wants to let me have their comments on anything I ever write, then feel free to . I love to interact with my audience.
If you read my pages about Cheyenne and Medicine Bow you will know that I didn't have any sleep there because of the fact that my motels in those two towns were right next to the railway. It will come as no surprise therefore when I tell you that here in Flagstaff, the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad was just across the road from the motel.
Here, the trains passed every 15 minutes, but the passage lasted 14 minutes 59 seconds. And obviously there was a level crossing just down the road so of course the trains were all obliged to whistle as they passed.
By this time I'd worked out that a train was a quarter of a mile (400 metres) long per locomotive, and most of these trains were pulled by four or five locomotives. No, I reckon I wasn't too far out at that.
But at least the Americans have got their railways right. Have a look at this train. This is how to transport your freight.
The railway infrastructure in parts of the USA is such that all the bridges and other overhead obstructions have been constructed so that the company can stack one shipping container on top of another.
This means of course that the trains are only half as long as they otherwise would be.
And it also means that wagon semi-trailers carrying shipping containers can go on the railway waggons, as you can see in the photograph below This means that they don't need to be hauled on the road.
Imagine what damage all this freight would do to a road infrastructure if it was being transported by a lorry. American roads aren't famous for quality, unfortunately, and I'm really disappointed by this. The French could certainly show them a thing or two.
Anyone who has driven up the M6 between Coventry and Wigan in the evening rush hour will have experienced 100 miles of snarl-up, much of which could be alleviated if there weren't so many lorries on the roads. Have a look next time you're up that way and stuck in a traffic jam. I bet that a good 50% of the carriageway space is occupied by lorries. They are proposing to dig up yet more of Cheshire to put in a fourth or even fifth lane.
In the early 1960s when they electrified the west coast main line between London and Carlisle, they were obliged to rebuild almost all of the bridges so that there would be sufficient clearance for the overhead electric cables. Just how much thought, how much effort, and how much extra expense would have been needed to have raised everything just that little bit more so that they could have run stacked containers or loaded semi-trailers, and kept the M6 relatively clear of most of the long-distance truck traffic?
But anyone who knows the UK will understand. Most British people either aren't interested and don't have a clue. They look at their own problems through a kind-of tunnel vision and are incapable of seeing the big picture. The idea of officials from government departments all working together to work out a common integrated plan is absolutely unheard-of.
Privatising the rail transport has made the situation even worse as each little company battles for its own private self-interest with no thought at all for the good of the customers or for the country as a whole.
Most people in the UK just don't get it.
In mainland Europe, though, they have a similar bottleneck on the railways and so they have gone for the double-deck solution. In the case of the Europeans though, it's passengers that cause the bottleneck, so their solution is to run double-deck passenger trains. It's quite ironic if you think about it. In the UK they have run double-deck buses for over 150 years, yet as far as I have seen, there's not a single double-deck train running anywhere on the UK rail network. In mainland European, they frown on the idea of double-deck public service buses yet run double-deck passenger trains.
The British answer is to hike up the passenger fares to drive away all the passengers. In February 2007 I was asked to pay £128 ($250) for a return ticket from London to Bath, United Kingdom, a journey of just over one hour. A couple of weeks later, a return ticket from Brussels, Belgium to Cologne, Germany of almost three hours cost me €51, or $60. Just look at this to see what kind of farce is being played out on British railways.
The poor Brits just don't get it.
Flagstaff actually has does have some things going for it, and one of them was the food. Normally for me, food in the USA means pizze without cheese, or a real ethnic Italian restaurant. But not here in Flagstaff.
Here we had the best restaurant in the whole of the South-Western USA, and I give it a shameless commercial puff because it deserves it. I made a special effort to take a business card and to write down the E-mail address of the place so I could put the details up on the site. When I came to write up my notes, though, I found that I had lost them.
But no matter. A brief examination of the odd credit card statement and a further bit of research reveals it as The Mountain Oasis Global Cuisine and Juice Bar, at 11 E Aspen. Nice friendly staff, superb cuisine, and a small range of vegan food for folk like me. I really enjoyed the meal and I really enjoyed the service, so big thanks to everyone there.
Another thing for which Flagstaff is famous is astronomy and in particular Percival Lowell.
In 1877 an Italian astronomer named Giovanni Sciaparelli reported that he had seen a series of straight lines crossing the deserts on Mars, and named them canali, which is Italian for "channels". Canali is also Italian for "canals" as they became known in the English-speaking world, and with an enthusiasm that can only be borne out by late Victorian Anglo-Saxon jingoism, many people reasoned that where there are canals, there must be a huge number of navvies who built them. And thus began the quest for life on Mars.
Lowell was swept away in the enthusiam and built an observatory here on Mars Hill, his ambition being to find intelligent life on Mars. One could be forgiven for thinking that he stood more chance of finding intelligent life on Mars than on, say, Capitol Hill. What attracted him to Northern Arizona was the clear night skies and rarified atmosphere.
He died in 1916 with his quest unfulfilled, but what he did do was to predict the existence of a ninth planet. He was unable to prove its existence but another astronomer, Clyde Tombaugh, did so here at Mars Hill in 1930 using Lowell's calculations. This planet became known as Pluto, the first two letters being Lowell's initials.
His mausoleum is up here at the observatory.
This isn't the end of the story, unfortunately. Pluto has always been dogged by controversy, and on 24 August 2006, astronomers at a conference in Prague brought the planet into their orbit and starred Pluto for debate. Their opinon was that Lowell didn't plan it very well and had been talking out of Uranus. They gave his theories a rocket and stripped Pluto of its planet status. Now that Lowell's theories and calculations have come to astro-naught, where does that leave him? Up in the air, with his head in the clouds, one might say.
On the drive down from the observatory, there are some really fine views through the trees, as you can see. The mountains in the background look absolutely superb.
Now all through this website to date there has been a recurring theme of coming to Flagstaff. Almost as if I'd had a purpose in visiting the town, you may think. And indeed I had.
My reason for being here was "South West Windpower", "Southwest Windpower", or even "South West Wind Power". I've just driven 800 miles to Flagstaff to talk "wind turbines" because back in Europe, whenever I want to talk about "wind turbines" no-one wants to listen. Here in the USA most people are interested.
Just what is it in the heads of most British people that they immediately dismiss all Americans as being profligate energy guzzlers with no thought for the environment? The different attitudes that each country has towards wind turbines should spike that story straight away.
The people here were nice and friendly, and know how to make a good cup of coffee. They were also pretty good at making phone calls for me. When they told me the price that they were able to arrange for me for one of their AH403 500-watt wind turbines, well, when I left Flagstaff there wasn't one in the car but TWO If there'd have been more room in the car I'd have had a few more as well.
This was now posing an interesting logistical problem as there really wasn't room in the car for two turbines along with the 200-litre box of electrical components that I'd bought in Loveland. I hadn't worked out either how I was going to be able to carry them around the airport and get them on the plane. Remember, I also had a huge suitcase.
Still, today was Tuesday and my flight back was next Monday so I had six days to sort it out. I was confident that, just like Mr Micawber, "something will turn up".
Meanwhile, I couldn't afford to hang about. Denver was due north-east from here, so the idea I had was to go north, then east, then north and then east and so on, and eventually I'd arrive. I'd seen a leaflet somewhere that said that the Grand Canyon was north-west from here. Well, it was near enough.
As for Flagstaff? The town's publicity states that "they don't make towns like this any more". Having seen the place and having stayed in a local motel, I can understand why.