Debbie Kruger
Debbie at state borders of Nevada, Utah and Arizona This is one of a series of travel features I wrote at the request of a newspaper which, due to editorial changes, never ran them all. The LA Story article, which was ultimately published, was also one of this series.


© Debbie Kruger 1995

“Ah, Thelma and Louise.”

That was the response I got when telling people about my U.S. driving trip.

“Where are you going?”
“What are you going to do there?”
“Drive all over the west, through eight states.”
“By yourself?”
“No, with a girlfiriend.”
“Ah, Thelma and Louise.”

Yeah, right. But sans the the convertible, the gun, the alcohol, the cigarettes, Brad Pitt or the heroic grand finale suicide drive off the canyon’s edge.

And if I was Thelma on this Odyssey, then my Louise changed mid-way. One friend accompanied me from Los Angeles to Seattle and back; now another was venturing with me into wilder terrain, through Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.

Truth is, Judy and I are more like... well, Debbie and Judy, actually. We wrote our own script, charted our own destiny, played our own soundtrack. Mostly we made each other laugh, but no-one else could understand the jokes.

I’d been hedonistic in L.A. for a week and needed to get away from the shops; plus, I was yearning to see some classic American landscape, from canyons to cacti. Judy was besieged by work hassles and rabbits and wanted to take photographs on her new wizz-bang Nikon.

So off we went in my rented Honda sedan loaded to capacity with Judy’s camera gear, Judy’s roller blades, Judy’s coffee maker, a shopping bag packed with sourdough pretzels and M&Ms which melted before we even hit the Mojave, and a huge selection of CDs to play on Judy’s portable CD player which stopped every time we hit a bump, and which we couldn’t play much louder than a whisper because of Judy’s sensitive ear-drums.

Still, throughout our journey I had songs playing in my mind’s own stereo.

Can you guess where I’m calling from? The Las Vegas Hilton.

Actually, we stayed at the Hard Rock Hotel, complete with guitar-shaped swimming pool, music eminating from under-water speakers, and relentless cacophony in the casino. I don’t gamble, but Judy had a flutter on the slot machines and won back her outlay. Food and accommodation is cheap in Las Vegas so it was a worthwhile pitstop before surrendering to the call of the wild.

And before leaving I made Judy take my picture standing outside the Hilton talking on her mobile phone. Yes, she brought that, too.

From Hard Rock to slick rock, and into Utah we drove. I was keen to see places that Australian tourists generally don’t go, so we took in two of the state’s numerous national parks, Zion and Arches.

Zion is a 229 square mile wilderness in south-west Utah. Its massive multi-coloured vertical cliffs and deep canyons cannot be done justice to in photos. Like most of the national parks in Utah and Arizona, it is a place for hikers. Judy and I had devised an impossibly crammed itinerary, so our half day in Zion was for driving and taking unjust photos.

We did walk to Weeping Rock, an alcove with dripping springs and hanging gardens of wild flowers decorating the walls, and we gazed up in reverence at the quiet grandeur of the Great White Throne, a towering monolith of 6,744 ft gradually changing in shade from white at its top to red near the bottom.

We wanted to get to Arches, 300 miles west, by the next day. So we drove into the late night until we reached an approximate half-way mark at Richfield, a drab backwood town that serves as the gateway to many state parks and offers an insight into ancient Fremont Indian culture.

Accommodation was plentiful so we went for the cheapest, and found the Jensen Motel alight with pink neon. The shower issued little more than a steady drip, and the mattresses created deep soft caverns for us to lie in, but it was too clichéd to resist, and Elberta Christensen, the dear old lady of the house, gladly switched the neon back on at midnight for Judy to take photos.

The next day we arrived in Thelma and Louise country. The I-70 swept us through canyons and plateaus that had us awestruck. Before noon we reached Moab, a laid-back, touristy and totally funky town that draws hikers and bikers from all over the world.

Moab overlooks the Colorado River, which was familiar to Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch and other outlaw gangs. It is the town which services both Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, but we were there for Arches, and not because half of Thelma and Louise was filmed there.

Arches contains the largest number of natural stone arches in the world, but its spires, fins and balancing rocks are just as wondrous. Water and ice, extreme temperatures, and underground salt movement are responsible for the sculptured rock scenery, but on clear days with cerulean blue skies, it is hard to imagine such violent forces and 100 million years of erosion. Pictograph and petroglyph panels are evidence of the Anasazi, Fremont and Ute Indians who utilised the area in ancient times.

The 40-mile round-trip paved road leads to the major sights, such as Balanced Rock and the Fiery Furnace, which can be viewed from the car, but some of the most striking formations like Landscape Arch and Delicate Arch require hiking.

We had one afternoon and Delicate Arch was our target. “No shade – take at least one quart of water per person! Open slickrock with some exposure to heights.” So warned the brochure.

1.5 miles each way didn’t seem daunting, but we soon dubbed the trail “killer rock.” Consuming a gourmet pizza before we set off was, in hindsight, unwise, and our water was simmering within half an hour because of the unrelenting heat. At one point I thought I would die on that rock, too weak and nauseated to continue or turn back. When I felt revived from a respite in the shade of a miniscule shrub, Judy began to falter. Successful hikers smiled reassuringly at us on their self-satisfied descent. “It’s worth it” they’d say. “It’s worth it.”

Well, it was. Delicate Arch deserves its fame and its place on the “Welcome to Utah” signs at every state border. Seemingly precarious it stands amid cliffs and slickrock domes. The arch has an opening of nearly 35 ft, and taking a photo without people beneath it is nearly impossible. The reward for getting there is to relax in the shade of its curvature, to share in silent repose the triumph of ascendancy.

And, of course, to then descend along the trail and assure those making their way up for the sunset that “it’s worth it.”

Dinner in Moab had to be at the Slick Rock Café, which was so good we breakfasted there as well. “Enjoy Moab. Enjoy life. Buy a t-shirt!” The motto is inscribed on the menu and bill. How could I refuse? (I was stopped in the street wearing my t-shirt in Byron Bay just last week by an enthusaistic Moab devotee from somewhere, U.S.A.).

Rocky Mountain high... Colorado.

We left Moab on the morning of a day promising to again hit 100 degrees, and arrived in Boulder, Colorado late that day in the first snowfall of the season.

We entered Colorado under a warm clear sky, and as the temperature dropped and the clouds rolled in, we were faintly displeased. When we passed through Vail and then Copper Mountain in thick grey soup, we stuck our hands out of the windows and caught falling ice in disbelief. It was only September.

Our two nights in Boulder were spent with my friend Jan (who had driven to Seattle and back with me earlier that month). I had been there twice before in winter, and was looking forward to flexing my Golden Eagle Passport at Rocky Mountain National Park, just 45 minutes away, in the early fall sunshine Jan had promised. But the road was cut off, and we had to content ourselves with eating, drinking coffee and shopping.

Boulder is a rapidly growing ultra-trendy college town where students, ski fanatics, hikers and new-agers co-exist. Celestial Seasoning Teas are made in Boulder, but we opted for the coffees at Pour La France on Pearl Street, two blocks down from the mall. Breakfast at Lucile’s on 14th Street, nationally famous for its Creole creations, was mandatory, and as always Jan had a new restaurant to recommend for dinner, on this occasion Zolo, an award winning bar and grill serving southwestern cooking.

But I was relieved to depart Boulder and its tempting shops and galleries, and head back to safer territory in the mountains and deserts. We were soon in warmer climates as we spent a full day travelling diagonally to the state’s south, along lush mountain passes, often through thick forest terrain, to Montrose and Telluride.

I was shocked at how Telluride had developed in the five years since I was there, and not unhappy to move on after a quick dinner. I wanted more barren locales, and we continued south to Cortez, nearest town to Mesa Verde National park.

Our next day’s itenierary should have had us both classified insane. Mesa Verde in the morning, Four Corners and Monument Valley in the afternoon, Grand Canyon by nightfall, and over 300 miles in between.

Southwestern Colorado is high plateau country. A major archeological preserve, Mesa Verde covers 80 square miles and its level top is heavily forested with juniper and piñon trees. It is seamed with large canyons, and sheltered in the hundreds of alcoves eroded in the cliffs are some of the world’s largest and best preserved cliff dwellings. Mesa Verde is the ideal place to experience the prehistoric culture of the Anasazi Indians.

At the ruins of Spruce Tree House, once the home for around 100 people with 114 rooms and eight ceremionial chambers, we came across a park ranger who should have been a stand-up comedian. A middle-aged gentleman was asking our ranger, Michael, about the ruin. “Tell me something about it. It’s old, yes?”

“No, actually, it was built in 1974 by bulldozers and high-tech machinery, as an extension of Disneyland. Anasazi Adventureland, it’s called.” Michael was deadpan. The tourist was confused.

“Are you real or animatronic?” Judy asked him.

“Totally animatronic,” Michael replied. “And at night I become a DJ, when this all turns into a giant dance club.”

The tourist had wandered off, but we all stood chatting for some time. Michael told me that he rarely encounters Australians at Mesa Verde. They’re all up at Grand Canyon.

Which was where we were headed, but not before a stop at Four Corners National Monument, where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona meet. It’s on Navajo Reservation land, so they charge a fee to enter and have your picture taken. The Navajo also control Monument Valley, where we arrived quite late in the day, as a dust storm was picking up. We toyed with the idea of going part of the way on the famous red dirt road, but the dust was swirling and we still had nearly 200 miles to travel. Fortunately from a viewing platform we could take in some of the magnificence of the isolated pillars of red sandstone towering as much as 1,000 feet above the valley floor.

We missed the Painted Desert which we crossed in the dark, and collapsed gratefully in our (comparatively) luxurious room at the Best Western Grand Canyon Squire Inn, which we had been lucky to get on a September Saturday night. Up early the following morning, we entered the south rim entrance to Grand Canyon National Park, parked the car, and headed straight for a vantage point.

It was my first ever sighting of the 1,900 square mile wonder. It was like walking out onto a movie set, a painted backdrop. It couldn’t be real. It was obvious why this was the American west’s major non-metropolis destination for tourists. Why photographers and artists have been endlessly fascinated by it. And why it is virtually impssible to get a hotel room either in the park or in the vicinity. It was the pinnacle of my Odyssey.

The Grand Canyon had me speechless. “Grand” could not tell how truly incomprehensible the canyon was. No words could describe it, so Judy and I allowed ourselves to feel humbled in its presence, and spent several hours quietly walking along the rim, taking dozens of photographs, watching the light and colour change at every moment. Judy’s idle threat to roller-blad along the rim was forgotten. But next time, I decided, I come for longer and take a mule trip to the canyon floor.

I was standing on a corner in Winslow Arizona, such a fine sight to see.

I so wanted to live out the line of the Eagles’ song, but Winslow was a good two-hour diversion, with nothing to entice us but a street-corner, and we didn’t even know which street. So onward we journeyed, through the cool and lush Oak Tree Canyon to Sedona, a touristy centre for the arts situated amid rugged red-hued rocks.

A night there, a side-trip to the former mining-turned ghost town of Jerome, which has been resurrected and restored for tourists, and then down to Pheonix. I heard Glen Campbell singing in my mind, but I am too restrained to even print that line.

Pheonix is a city, we wanted desert. After a night with a friend of Judy’s, we continued south into cactus country, and spent an afternoon at Saguaro National Monument, near Tuscon. There are two parts to this park, east and west. We chose the more compact Saguaro West in the Tuscon Mountain District, and admired the giant cacti in their various human-like poses. The suguaro is considered the monument of the Sonoran Desert and the supreme symbol of the American southwest, but there were many other breeds of cactus in this paradoxically hot, dry and verdant region.

Last stop Tuscon, and here was a town I wanted to explore, not for the Spanish architecture nor the array of unique, arty shops and cafés. Not for the pleasure of staying in the colourful and somwhat seedy Congress Hotel downtown, nor for the many luxury resorts which welcome day visitors at a small fee.

I wanted to pay homage to my favourite female rock star, Linda Ronstadt, who was born, raised and schooled in Tuscon, whose family still resides there,, and whose songs had permeated my soundtrack throughout this American trip, from Mendocino to Los Angeles to Colorado to Arizona.

The Ronstadt Hardware store, run by her grandfather or uncle or some relative, was no longer. The seven or eight Ronstadts in the phone book did not deserve my intrusion. All I could do was walk up the road to the bus terminal, named the Ronstadt Transit Center, and have Judy take my photo.

Well, Thelma and Louise never got that far.

Getting there
United Airlines return flight from Brisbane to Los Angeles and Hertz car rental were pre-paid in Australia through Ansett International Travel and Creative Tours. Economy excursion air fare and 35 day car rental, including taxes, was $A2,464.
The Golden Eagle Passport, providing unlimited 12 month access for a vehicle and its passengers in all national parks, can be purchased at the gate of any national park for $US25.

AAA Los Angeles: 2601 S. Figueroa Street. (213) 741 3111.
Utah Welcome Center, I-15 near St George. (801) 673 4542
Colorado Welcome Center, I-70 at Fruita. (970) 858 1000
Grand Canyon Visitors Center (602) 526 4574
Arizona Office of Tourism, 1100 W. Washington St, Phoenix, AZ 85007.
(602) 542 8687.

Map of route taken on Desert Odyssey
© Debbie Kruger
No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form
without prior written permission.

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